When is it appropriate to turn into a potato? (And other important questions about video conferencing)
By now you may have heard the story of Lizet Ocampo, Department Head at non-profit People For the American Way. It’s a tale of challenges in the face of remote working, video conferencing mishaps, and the importance of laughter at times like these. Lizet accidentally turned herself into a potato on a video call with her team. Not being totally familiar with filters, she was unable to turn herself back into a human. The incident – shared on social media by one of her colleagues – quickly went viral. Probably not because it’s note-worthy. But because it’s so relatable.
In Lizet’s case, this was a technical mishap, but as those of us working remotely spend an increasing amount of time on video calls and conferences, let’s stop to ask ourselves this important question: when is it appropriate to turn into a potato?
It’s a question of boundaries. Lines between work life and home life. Between friends and colleagues. And colleagues who are friends. Team calls and client calls. The difficulty is, everything is blurred at the moment. By necessity, home life, work life and family life are overlapping in ways that we never imagined. However, we still need for our meetings to be productive and efficient. Which means, while it might seem like common sense, it could be useful to consider some simple guidance on how to get the most from video conferencing.
Here are three things I find helpful:
1. Have a chairperson. Whether it’s an important client discussion, or an informal team catch up, you want to get the most from the video conference – and you want to make sure everyone is heard and understood. Make sure you have a chairperson who is able to act as a host. Although it’s not an in-person meeting, it’s still appropriate to make introductions and check everyone is in attendance. Even if the call is informal in nature, let your chairperson’s demeanor set that relaxed tone, but you still need someone to be in charge of the multi-way communication. Also, make sure you know who the chairperson is in advance. Most importantly, make sure the chairperson knows.
2. Encourage dialogue. It’s easier to have discussions face-to-face. Face-to-face you can read people’s energy. You can interject more easily. It takes extra work and planning to encourage dialogue on video conference. First, consider the platform you’re using and how many people will be in the meeting. Will you be able to see everyone on screen? Microsoft Teams only allows you to see four people at once, which can add to conversation lags and disjointedness if the meeting is bigger. Let your chairperson encourage dialogue by asking opinions. In smaller meetings it can help to ask people directly by name, “Kate, what do you think?” Kate might struggle with the less organic nature of a video discussion, and that’s OK. Acknowledge that it is less natural, and that there might be a delay, or an echo, or a child crying in the background. It’s more important that everyone leaves the video conference feeling that they got what they needed from it.
3. Know the tone. This is perhaps where the all-important question re; potatoes comes into play. Is this a client meeting or a team catch up? Is it a meeting with your boss or your team mate who usually sits across from you? Is it a quick check-in or a pitch? You need to know the tone of the meeting and set things up accordingly. So ask yourself:
1. How is your lighting?
2. Does your background environment look free from clutter and the leftovers from your sandwich?
3. Are you wearing a top that could be misconstrued as pajamas? (Are you wearing pajamas?)
Most platforms offer backgrounds that can be used to mitigate the need to control your environment. This is a nice touch, particularly for client meetings. And, yes, most platforms also offer filters. Some with the power to turn you into a potato. I’m going to be firm here: it’s not best practice to appear as a potato in a serious business meeting. I would add, it’s not best practice in a time-sensitive status call, and nobody really wants to see you as a potato when they’re discussing their personal development or any sensitive issues. Why? Because it’s a distraction. And because these are conversations that require an indication of intent that you take them seriously and are showing respect to your fellow attendees. So in answer to the title question of this blog, when the reason to hold a video conference is to have clearer, more authentic communication between people, it’s not appropriate to turn into a potato.
That said, there is a time and a place when it’s entirely appropriate. Be a potato. Be a unicorn. Be whatever makes you smile. These are unusual times, and often unusually stressful. Much as you can try to keep them separate, the lines between work and life are blurred. So when you’re chatting casually to your team or having a virtual coffee break with a colleague, why not have a little fun?
Lizet Ocampo agrees. Speaking with Time Magazine (that’s how big this story got), she said her team works incredibly hard and – while she was unable to remove the potato filter – she also left it on because, “laughter is needed for many reasons.”
That’s a remote working rule to live by.