Perhaps you’re scheduled for a large presentation-style virtual meeting with some attendee participation. Or maybe you’re experiencing Zoom fatigue while staring at your teammates’ faces through a screen. Whatever the situation, we’ve all wondered at some point whether to turn our camera on or leave it off.
The camera on vs. camera off debate recently hit a new peak. Supporters of the camera-on approach insist that it builds relationships and trust. Opponents say that always being on camera is taxing, stressful, and unnecessary.
In March, Citigroup introduced ‘Zoom-Free Fridays’, a commitment to no cameras in virtual meetings for the last day of every week. Meanwhile, Californians debated whether students should be required to turn cameras on while in virtual classes to ensure interaction and learning. Clearly, there are some strong feelings on either side of this discussion.
Do the benefits of having your camera on in a remote meeting outweigh the drawbacks? Let’s take a look at each argument.
Camera On: Fostering Connection
The more video Zoom meetings we have, the more having your camera on becomes expected. By now we’ve all experienced what it feels like to enter a meeting with our camera off only to be greeted by a sea of faces. Most of us quickly turn our own cameras on in response.
It’s an understandable adjustment. Many people consider “camera on'' simply the polite thing to do. After all, others can’t see your expressions and other nonverbal cues if your camera is off. This might create an impression that you don’t plan to be engaged in the meeting or don’t care whether people know you’re engaged.
Some people find it especially rude to keep your camera off when others have theirs on. This lack of reciprocation can breed distrust.
From a management perspective, asking for cameras on vs. off may keep team members from multitasking in zoom meetings. While requiring adults to be on-camera is a big ask, many companies highly encourage it.
Finally, some might argue that right now is the most critical time in the history of virtual meetings to keep cameras on. Communication and visibility are more important than ever before in a world coping with social distancing.
Since many of us work from home, most people have come to forgive casual wear in remote meetings. It’s hard to use the excuse of “I don’t look professional enough” when we’re all in the same boat. And who doesn’t have a “Zoom shirt” nearby they throw on for meetings?
For people in sales, customer success, and communications, connection and good impressions are critical. That requires cameras on.
Camera Off: Respecting Boundaries
Despite the camera-on crowd’s enthusiasm, video fails such as pantsless reporting, kitten filters, and broadcasted bathroom trips demonstrate that it’s no perfect meeting solution.
However, there’s another good reason to keep the camera off. Being on camera is a considerable contributor to virtual meeting fatigue.
One study found four causes of Zoom fatigue:
- Excessive close-up eye gaze. In in-person meetings, an attendee only holds the visual attention of the room if they are speaking. In a virtual meeting, on-camera attendees often look at and feel looked at by a whole grid of faces for the entire meeting. It’s an intense, taxing experience for our brains.
- Cognitive load. From technical difficulties to monitoring nonverbal cues from everyone in a meeting, our brains simply work harder on camera. We’re centering ourselves in the camera’s field of view, exaggerating nods to make sure they’re seen, or looking at the camera instead of the screen to imitate eye contact.
- Increased self-evaluation. Seeing ourselves in a mirror or self-view video feed triggers self-evaluation. Self-evaluation for extended periods, needless to say, can become quite stressful. We end up overanalyzing our appearance, expression, background, lighting, and other visual elements. It’s easy to focus on ourselves more than the meeting.
- Constraints on physical mobility. Finally, being on camera requires sitting still, usually in a small field of vision. This discourages stretching, leaning, and turning in ways that would be seen as normal in person. We can’t doodle or fidget in the harmless ways people do in meetings without sacrificing attention.
Videoconference software often allows for speaker view or hiding self-view to alleviate some of these issues. However, there are other considerations for turning the camera off.
Firstly, people who are working from home deserve privacy and boundaries between work and life. The camera-off crew doesn’t necessarily want their boss seeing their bedroom.
Secondly, being on camera is more difficult for people living with things like anxiety, which is currently at an all-time high. These people simply can’t do their best work while on camera.
Finally, consider the reason why we’re having so many Zoom meetings in the first place (thanks, COVID). Pressuring people to look professional, present a clean background, and share their personal space digitally with coworkers while working from home during a pandemic is a big ask.
Just because you can use your camera doesn’t mean you have to. Camera-off fans say it’s time to join forces and ditch them whenever possible.
So, which is it for virtual meetings? On or off?
In the camera on vs. off debate, perhaps there is a middle ground to be found.
Turn your camera on if:
- you are leading the meeting or presenting
- it’s important to demonstrate that you’re paying attention
- you are meeting people for the first time who you will likely work with again
- you feel great about how you look and excited to engage
- the room you’re in is presentable, calm, and relatively distraction-free
Turn your camera off if:
- you don’t expect to speak much
- the meeting doesn’t require making an impression
- you’re meeting with people you’ve developed a rapport with
- you simply need a break from the camera
- there’s a lot going on in the room you’re in
Remember, using speaker view and hiding self-view alleviate some of the problems that cause Zoom fatigue regardless of whether your camera is on or off.
If your camera is off, don’t feel guilty about it. Exercising boundaries while working from home is a good thing! And if your camera is on, well, try not to forget about it and give us another videoconference fail to laugh at.