Not my worst nightmare precisely, but rather, my ‘work nightmare’ - we’re all on camera during meetings now. This wasn’t supported by our previous software package. I asked my boss during my first week, “What percentage of the time will we be on camera?” He replied, “Zero!”
Alas, it was not to last.
Technically we use three separate software platforms for calls, depending on who is involved. The rules are slightly different for each, meaning there is the usual amount of confusion over how to dial in or mute. To compound matters, individual results depend on whether each person is logging in via phone, company laptop, or VPN, whether they’re at home or on campus, and then whether they’re on iPhone or Android, Mac or PC. It’s still a little messy.
Let’s just say it’s not always easy to tell when you think you’re on mute and you’re not. I was just on a call with 140 people, and suddenly there were the outraged screams of a child piercing the background. For several minutes. If the child had been the victim of a dog attack or had fallen out of a tree, the cries would not have been inconsistent. No adult seemed to be supervising. Whose kid was this?? I figured out the only person with an open mic other than the speaker, whose unfazed expression showed it couldn’t possibly have been going on in his background. The guy with the wailing child ironically raised an eyebrow - and I realized, this must just be what parenting and home-schooling while working from home is like.
At other times, I have been treated to the sounds of someone chewing, shouting, holding a long rambling phone call, watching a football game, and even peeing and flushing a toilet. I’ve heard cats meowing directly into the mic. I’ve heard doorbells and lawn mowers and car alarms and sirens and barking dogs. Of course, I’m a fine one to talk, as I have a parrot who likes to sit behind me and peer over my shoulder at the screen. And beep, peep, and whistle while I’m on a hot mic.
This was all one type of mayhem when we were just on the phone together. Now that we’re on camera, it’s oh so much more.
There are several things that I hate about being on camera. For one, it makes me extremely self-conscious that I always look like I’m paying attention. I am camera-shy at the best of times. At work, it feels like the stakes are higher. The entire reason we’re on camera is to demonstrate that everyone is fully engaged in every meeting. This is where I feel compelled to monitor my facial expressions.
One day, I turned on my camera, went to wave to someone, and realized that there was a stack of empty boxes visible in range of my camera. My face morphed into annoyance and disgust - not a sexy expression - and then I realized that it looked like I was frowning AT someone. Not myself and my own recycling schedule, my own ability to frame shots - but AT a person. I would never make that face at anyone outside of politics!
Now I have to be self-conscious not only about my facial expression, but what is visible in my living room as well.
I’ve read up a bit on this, since everyone and literally their grandparents are on Zoom these days. People complain about anyone having a blank wall behind them. In other words, they want to SNOOP. They don’t want to look at me or listen to what I’m saying - they want to spy in the background, read the titles of my books, and assess my character, taste, and lifestyle based on what they can see over my shoulder.
In my personal opinion, that is far, far worse than being judged on my body image. I’d much rather have someone make snarky comments about my caboose than about how I decorate my living room. This is my private home, and if I wanted to invite you over to see it, I would. I doubt most people signed on for their jobs with the desire to have 100% of their professional colleagues inside their home.
It’s worse for some of our early-career colleagues, most of whom were caught out by the pandemic. One of our young ones has to work on his bed because he’s temporarily staying with his parents, and they work at home too. Another works on her couch with a TV tray in her lap, because she’s a newlywed and they don't really have furniture yet. It’s a little unfair for those who are still in the student lifestyle, sharing a video grid with a manager or director who has owned a home for 25 years.
At least two of my older colleagues have their work stations out in the garage. Why? With a spouse and two or more kids in the house, there just isn’t enough space or sound-proofing for everyone.
This is part of how I have finally gotten over my camera shyness and learned to fight my self-consciousness at work.
I turned on a blurry background, so all that can really be seen behind me is that I work next to a window. If you know where to look and what you’re looking at, you can sometimes see a blur of a red parrot tail somewhere over my head. A slight tilt of the laptop screen and the camera aims more toward the ceiling and less toward the scattering of feathers and shreds of lettuce on my floor.
My competition on camera includes a lot of people who are less tech-savvy than I am, at least in terms of video calls. The rules of the game start to include more about competent use of the tool than oneupmanship over hair, makeup, and wardrobe - at least in our industry. I can certainly be thankful that I work with engineers and not in fashion, marketing, or television.
One day we all might start working together at the office again. (That’ll be weird since I don’t even know where my desk is yet). On that day, I hope that my colleagues will be surprised at how much better I look in person. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can to keep the bar on aesthetics and personal disclosure low, returning the focus to merit, where it should be.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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