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Lights, thanks? — Camera use during virtual meetings

This week I ran two online workshops on ‘virtual presence’ for Air BnB (9 pm NZ time). One hot topic that came up during the workshop was the use of cameras.

Here’s my take.

Benefits of cameras ‘on’:

  • Research shows that participants are more likely to contribute to discussions when their cameras are on.

  • Cameras ‘on’ allows for observation of social cues (E.g. detecting when someone isn’t engaged).

  • Cameras ‘on’ lead to accountability and greater levels of focus.

  • Being able to see those in the meeting increases the personal connection between participants.

BUT (and here’s the challenge):

  • Some people prefer their cameras off.

  • Meeting hosts need to be sensitive to the personal situations of participants.

  • Some meeting hosts make no attempt to encourage ‘cameras on,’ even when it is important to do so.

So, what’s the answer?

In his book, Managing Humans, Michael Lopp says, “Meeting often the art of managing a moment, which means that the only rule that applies is entirely dependent on the snowflake-like context of the moment.”

In other words, like many things in depends.

Whether or not participants should turn their cameras on depends upon:

  • The type of meeting

  • The personal situations of participants

  • How well participants know each other

  • The dynamic between the host and participants, and

  • Company culture

"...the only rule that applies is entirely dependent on the snowflake-like context of the moment.”

That being said, here are a couple of tips for navigating camera use during meetings.

1. Understand when turning cameras on is important

Generally speaking, the more participation required from participants, the more the meeting will benefit from cameras on.

For example, decision-making meetings will almost always be more successful (and easier to manage) if participants have their cameras on. Visibility of body language gives insight into how the discussion is ‘landing,’ and will thus inform the pace and direction of the meeting.

Whereas meetings that primarily focus on transmitting information, will benefit less.

2. Where appropriate, encourage participants to turn their cameras on

If you’re running a meeting that would benefit from cameras ‘on’, take a moment at the beginning of the meeting to ask participants to turn on their cameras, then state why doing so is important for that particular meeting.

The other week I ran an online workshop for approx 50 participants. Knowing the workshop required participation from the attendees, I said, “Thank you to those that have put their cameras on. Could the rest of you please do the same, that way it will help us feel like we’re in the same room together?”

Then I waited.

Sure enough, all remaining faces appeared on the screen. If anyone was disgruntled by my asking, they got over it pretty quickly.

As an external trainer, I could get away with this direct approach. Other situations may call for less direct phrasing, such as:

“Before we get started, if it’s possible, could we all please turn our cameras on? It’s important for this meeting because…”

“It’s good to see so many cameras on, and it would be great if the rest of you could join us. Being able to see everyone is important for this meeting because…”

“Come on [name(s)], we know it’s a Monday, but we would love to see you, no matter what your hair is looking like. Being able to see one another is important for this meeting because…” (Before using this approach, be sure you have good rapport/an established relationship with the person(s).

Camera use can be tricky, particularly when people are dialling in from home. When we ask people to turn their cameras on we’re asking them to reveal their personal environment. Work-life and home-life have never been so closely acquainted.

Yes, we should respect participants’ needs to remain invisible in some cases. However, the inclination to remain unseen, if left unchecked, could lead to less creativity, collaboration, and connectedness.

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