As Videoconferencing Becomes the Norm, Some Question Whether It’s Hurting Business

A look into the psychology of informality

a man sitting at a desk in his underpants with a button-down shirt on and a martini next to his laptop
There's a high possibility that we'll come out of quarantine feeling a stronger bond with colleagues.
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Key insights:

If there’s any executive who understands the importance of professional behavior on a video conference call, it’s Frank Weishaupt.

Two years ago, the Boston-based serial entrepreneur took the helm as CEO of Owl Labs, whose core product was Meeting Owl, a 360-degree mic/speaker/camera combo that highlights everyone in a virtual meeting. Now, with prospects to call, clients to support and employees now working from home, Weishaupt hasn’t just been doing a lot of video conferencing lately—he’s been effectively showcasing his product through his own on-screen behavior.

It was unfortunate, then, that during a recent video conference, his 7-year-old son Cooper decided to be part of the meeting, too.

“[He] was playing dodgeball and ran into the screen in his underpants,” Weishaupt recalled. “They were BB-8 underpants from Star Wars. It’s not exactly the way I would have scripted it.”

Two or three weeks ago, it might have been easy to criticize such a lack of decorum, were it not for the fact that many of us have seen or been the source of moments similar to this one. Even before the onset of COVID-19 sent office workers home, 4.7 million Americans worked beneath their own roofs. Today, of course, that figure is many times higher—easily into the tens of millions.

For this newly created class of homebound 9-to-5 workers, the easiest way to maintain office protocols like staff and client meetings are videoconferencing tools like Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. And since a good many of the people using online video are new to these platforms—and new to working from home, period—the past couple of weeks have given rise not only to wide-eyed, kid-in-his-underwear moments, but to the sort of widespread insouciance that the average American office simply isn’t used to.

“Working from a home is a personal thing,” said Scott Cawood, CEO of HR executive association World at Work. “Employees are opening a very intimate part of their lives to their bosses and coworkers.”

Colleagues who’ve nary been seen wearing anything other than dress shirts and pressed blouses are now appearing on camera in hoodies, pajamas or even less than that. Professionals used to working at a desk are now installed on the sofa or in bed. Family members, paramours and pets make cameos in the frame as, of course, do people’s private living spaces—complete with dirty laundry on the floor and the sounds of flushing toilets in the background.

Or worse. There was the New York Post story about the university student who logged onto a video class just as her boyfriend rose buck naked from the sofa behind her. There was the BBC reporter on Skype who forgot that the camera was aimed at piece of artwork on the wall that showed a man fisting a cow. And there was the now-infamous instance of the woman who forgot her camera was on and sat down on the toilet.

“Right now, especially as people adapt to this change, [our colleagues are getting] a rare glimpse of our own living spaces,” said brand consultant and writer David Deal. “Sometimes the results are humorous and sometimes they’re a little unsettling, but they’re always interesting.”

Fortunately, most breaches of office etiquette are not this glaring. But if there’s a trend that’s emerged as much of America works from home, it’s this: Even in the age of the casual workplace, a new era of informality has arrived.

“This new paradigm has become the new normal, and what you’re seeing is the Venn diagram of public personas and private personas,” said Robert Passikoff, a psychologist and founder of consultancy Brand Keys. “It sets up a very interesting opportunity to judge people in ways that you probably never thought about.”

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