Why—and When—It’s OK To Keep Your Camera Off During Virtual Meetings
Updated July 19, 2023
The good news about our digital-first world? Almost everything can be done online.
The not-so-good news? Doing some things virtually (meetings, for example) can take up more of our bandwidth than doing the very same activity in person.
People who work from home or enjoy any degree of hybrid flexibility know the benefits of remote work. Workers are more in charge of their schedules, and they have increased autonomy and independence at work. Remote employees can also network with people across the company, regardless of location. They can work from anywhere with an internet connection, removing the need for what for some may be a difficult commute.
However, if you've ever tuned into an online meeting, event or webinar, you're probably aware that it affected you in a different way than attending an in-person event. If you've had a lot of digital meetings, you may have felt exhausted, burned out or strained.
If this rings true for you, you are not alone. Video meeting fatigue is very real—and it's not going anywhere. So, what can we do to mitigate it? Specifically, is it okay for us to turn our cameras off during meetings?
What is video meeting fatigue?
Video meeting fatigue—sometimes called "Zoom fatigue" because Zoom is arguably the most well-known conferencing platform—is exactly what it sounds like: a feeling of exhaustion that sets in after attending one-too-many virtual meetings.
But how many online meetings are too many? Is video meeting fatigue just part of our lives now?
Is turning your camera off a potential solution?
There's no way around it: Online meetings can take a toll. The video and audio stimulation can be intense, and you might also feel preoccupied with thoughts about how you look on camera. Or you may overemphasize your physical cues, like nodding your head, to be sure you're seen. That can be draining as well.
Add to that the fact that if you're working from home, you're probably taking your meetings in the same space you do everything else, blurring the boundaries between your professional and personal lives—and you can see why people are feeling frustrated and looking for solutions.
While there are many ways to manage or mitigate video meeting fatigue, there's one very obvious solution: Turn your cameras off during virtual meetings.
That sounds so simple, right? Yet it's much easier said than done. Today, we'll share some perspectives on how people can benefit from cameras off during meetings, why this practice is not as prevalent as you might think and how the workforce may change in regards to accepting this shift. We'll also discuss instances where you probably want your camera on!
Benefits of keeping your camera off during meetings
First up: What are the best reasons to keep your camera off during video meetings? We asked a number of seasoned experts to weigh in, and here's what they had to say.
Reduced stress and increased satisfaction at work
Meisha Bochicchio, Senior Content Marketing Manager at Goldcast, feels that if people at work are uncomfortable on camera, we should respect this. Allowing folks to have their cameras off can reduce individual employee stress and make people feel more relaxed during meetings.
Turning your camera off when you want to also makes people feel trusted and appreciated at work. Knowing that their job is flexible and respectful of their needs can boost employee wellbeing and create loyalty to the company.
Tara Elwell Henning co-founded Superkin, an advisory firm helping companies modernize workplace support for parents and caregivers. She admits that while she's on camera most of the time, sometimes turning her camera off bolsters her productivity and allows her to multitask while still paying attention to the meeting.
Cameras-off can also improve your productivity as it relates to the current meeting by allowing you to work how you want. Tara knows people who like their cameras off so they can pace around the room during the meeting, as moving around helps them do their best work.
(PS: If walking meetings interest you, check out this post for other creative meeting ideas!)
Turning cameras off gives people more flexibility. Tara notes that in today's workforce, nearly 75% of employees have some form of caregiving responsibilities they're juggling in addition to their careers.
"Working parents might have to take a sick parent or child to the doctor, and cameras off gives them the ability to continue the call while on the road, or to join a call from a child's sports team practice," she explains. That means more people can attend meetings and feel like valued members of the team while still taking care of things they need to do at home.
More inclusive meetings
Marcia Dickerson, Ph.D., CEO of Dickerson Management and Career Consulting and Professor of Management at Louisiana Tech University, recalls learning that people of color have less stress when working remotely because they aren't forced to navigate as many situations where they're the minority.
Allowing people to have their cameras off can help people feel less out of place and level the playing field.
"Team members with disabilities may feel more comfortable turning the camera off, allowing them to stim (make repetitive movements or noises that may aid self-regulation) or use assistive technology without feeling unwanted eyes on them. Others may simply benefit from the lack of perceived eye contact," says Donna Bungard, Sr. Accessibility Program Manager for Marketing at Indeed.
"By allowing people to define their boundaries and practice them without judgment, each team member can be better set up to do their best work."
Additionally, people from different socioeconomic statuses may feel uncomfortable sharing their home spaces on camera. While backgrounds can help, you're still inviting people into your home space during an on-camera Zoom meeting.
"For those who feel 'othered' at work already, this can exacerbate the issue," Marcia states. "For these reasons, I never ask my college students to turn on their cameras, even if it means I'm looking at 100 blank screens and no faces."
Is there a stigma around turning your cameras off during meetings?
With the benefits above, why isn't everyone opting to turn their cameras off when necessary?
The answer is complicated. People may feel pressured to leave their cameras on for several reasons. The most common reasons people cite for not wanting to turn their cameras off are because they worry they'll be seen as unattentive or disengaged, or even that they'll struggle to be heard in the meeting because they aren't front-and-center on the meeting grid.
Meisha feels like a lot of the stigma and backlash around turning cameras off is unwarranted. "It's pretty easy to tell when someone isn't paying attention—regardless of whether their camera is on or off."
Automatically assuming that people are "slacking off" simply because they aren't on camera doesn't lend itself to a trust-filled company culture. Beyond that, expecting everyone to be on camera for every meeting may be unrealistic. Many employees are already dealing with a staggering amount of weekly online meetings—which brings us straight to our next point.
Not every meeting needs to be a Zoom meeting
In the early days of remote work, many of us were excited to discover we could handle much of our work online. However, Marcia calls out that many organizations have now dropped traditional phone calls altogether and instead only host Zoom calls—a recipe for employee exhaustion and potential burnout.
"Not every conversation needs to be on Zoom," she emphasizes. "Employers need to recognize that Zoom calls require more energy and attention from most people, so asking for one—especially with cameras on—is going to deplete people in a way that a conference call won't. I'd encourage managers to think about situations in which a phone call would suffice."
Erin Halper, CEO of The Upside, completely agrees. "Most companies probably need to reduce the number of required meetings in the first place. If an employee really doesn't need to be there, they'll want to turn their camera off to focus on other tasks. My guess is that if this is an issue at a company, most employees don't feel their presence is needed at that meeting and would rather focus on getting their actual work done."
And it doesn't necessarily have to be a traditional phone call to your personal phone or work phone—business messaging platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Chat are able to host audio calls internally without ever having to request for access to your video camera.
However, there are still some situations in which camera-on makes sense
While there are a lot of benefits to normalizing having your camera off, this isn't an across-the-board prescription. There are still some instances where keeping your camera on may be better.
Femily Howe, Founder of the American Association of Corporate Gender Strategists, feels strongly that leadership should keep their cameras on. She explains that it contributes to inclusivity—particularly when it's an all-hands meeting, which may be one of the only times employees can openly meet with the leadership team.
"There is a race and gender dynamic here," she explains. "Marginalized people are less often invited to meetings with leadership, so when they are, leaders should be openly present for what is a precious opportunity."
Tara agrees that leaders and presenters should opt for cameras on. Whether it's a formal business review, a town hall, a C-suite call or another type of meeting, her guiding rule is: "If you're presenting something, your camera should be on."
For Marcia, keeping the camera on during her 1:1 coaching services is non-negotiable. It's part of showing up for her client and being available to them. She's published research regarding workplace communication and the concept of media richness theory, which tells us that mediums allowing for various cues (like tone of voice, eye contact, etc.) enhance communication and make it more effective.
"The richest medium is face-to-face, and Zoom with the camera on is a close second," she says. "If I'm working with someone and talking about job performance, giving feedback, or discussing challenging work issues, I can't be as effective if I can't read the other person's face."
As a general rule of thumb, Marcia says that any conversation that would be serious enough to warrant a face-to-face meeting if everyone were in the same office would benefit from cameras on. Of course, there should be exceptions made for people who need them. If an employee is up all night with a sick child, they probably won't feel their best on camera the next morning.
For Erin, the situation's intimacy and interactivity determine whether cameras should be on. For example, if you're in a meeting with 15 people and you're expected to be involved in the conversation, it might make more sense to be on camera than if you're one of 300 attendees listening to a single lecturer.
She also points to the visibility benefit of being on screen. "When your camera's on, you get bumped to the top of the Zoom grid, making you more visible to the speaker. The more visibility you have, the more memorable you are to the people running the meetings. It makes a difference."
Change may need to start at the top down
So, how do we shift the workplace toward being okay with cameras off when appropriate?
Everyone we spoke with felt that change needed to begin with the employers.
As Meisha said, "Change starts at the top down. Employees are far more likely to accept change if it starts with leadership. Even if you're a manager and love being on camera, you can still tell people to feel free to do what's best for them. That can help people understand it's okay to prioritize themselves and not just do what others are doing."
To start normalizing this practice, employers should reconsider company-wide, video-on mandates. Tara equates this to the 2023 version of leaders who think "butts-in-seats equals productivity." She points out that millennials—the largest cohort of the working population—do not generally buy into that belief and instead prioritize flexibility from their employers.
Video meeting fatigue is an ongoing issue for many workers. To begin reducing some of the strain on workers, companies should consider experimenting with cameras off for meetings and allowing for more flexibility when attending virtual events. This will set the precedent within the company and allow employees some relief from on-screen burnout.
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