Keeping Up Appearances

In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people across the world are waking up this morning to another day of working remotely, mostly at home. Kitchen tables, box rooms and garden sheds have been hastily cleared to make way for a laptop, printer and a mug of coffee. In a bid to stay in touch and fend off insanity, many of us are turning to video conferencing to conduct meetings that would normally take place in the ‘Steve Jobs’ Conference Room at the office. The wonders of Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams are beaming images of us sitting at our makeshift desk across the globe. People who have never, and will never, make it across the threshold of our homes now have a ringside view of our soft furnishings, wall hangings and knick-knacks.


So what are the pitfalls in this new world of video conferencing?


Firstly, and most importantly, you need to set the right tone with your backdrop. I am constantly amazed at the lack of awareness that people have of this critical aspect of what can best be described as your ‘home studio’. Almost every video conferencing platform offers the user an image of themselves as seen by their co-Zoomers. This of course can be switched off, but not before you get to see what you actually look like.


This makes a video call I had the other day even more puzzling. I was discussing an upcoming piece of consultancy work with a colleague who was attempting to persuade me that she would be the ideal person to manage this project. She explained to me that her organisational skills were second to none and that she had a virtually OCD approach to neatness and order, while I gazed at the bomb site that was her home office. There were so many books and files were strewn across the floor behind her, it looked like someone had hurled a grenade into Waterstones.


So be aware of what your home working venue might say about you. It seems very common for people to choose to sit in front of a bookcase, in order, I have to assume, to convey the impression of an intellectual genius. However, take a close look at what books and DVDs are visible to the viewer. I found it extremely difficult to take a potential client seriously the other day as he spoke earnestly to me of his need for my particular sales skills while framed by the largest collection of ‘Carry On…’ films I had ever seen. I was left in no doubt that he needed help, but not quite the sort he was imagining.


Even a solitary book can catch the eye of a fellow FaceTimer, if large enough. A friend of mine was distracted during a video 1:1 with her boss the other day by a bumper illustrated copy of the ‘Joy of Sex’ perching among the self help books in her manager’s bookcase. The 2019 Beano Annual sitting next to it didn’t help either.



Photographs on the wall are another danger area. While ancestral portraits and pictures of your daughters graduation or son’s Bar Mitzvah are acceptable, you may regret displaying photos from cousin Charlie’s stag in Ibiza or the ABBA tribute night at the local village hall.   So, if in doubt, use the ‘blur backdrop’ option or a green screen in the app settings or the focus may not be on you next time you Skype a work colleague.


Secondly, be aware of when and how you are visible on a conference call. One of the hidden delights of Microsoft Teams is that you are not constantly in view. In a conference call of, lets say, ten people, only four people are shown on screen at any given time. I wrongly thought that this was determined by whoever was speaking the most. However, the reality is, that you can pop up any someone else’s screen at any time with you even knowing it. So it’s highly advisable to keep the sighing, rolling of the eyes, the scratching of the nose and the topping up of the Pinot Noir away from the camera. The ‘Switch Off Camera’ button must be your best friend.


The angle of the camera is also pivotal. All to often callers look into the camera as if they were peering into a wishing well or, worse still, force us to spend the whole call staring at their forehead or the inside of their ear. For the record, a slightly elevated non-HD head on shot (with the ‘Touch Up My Appearance’ button on full) is the most flattering look.


Finally, as if dress down Friday wasn’t enough, the boom in video calling now requires us to witness our colleagues in their ultra leisurewear every day of the week. I’m talking about the sort of clothing that I am wearing while writing this article but clothing that I would never dream of modelling for my co-workers during a call. Can someone tell me what is it about video conferencing that encourages people to look like they’ve just crawled up an embankment after a derailment wearing clothes that only escaped landfill thanks to the Primark clearance sale? It costs nothing to make a little effort and look like you’ve been awake for more than five minutes.


So remember, you may be at home but we’re all watching you. By the time a video call is over, we will have examined every detail of your home, your outfit and your beverage of choice. Make sure you get it right. Remember, when this is all over you’ll have to meet look these people in the eye again.