A Guest Post by Minerva Tico
Director of Strategic Operations at Cisco | Certified Trauma Professional | Ardent Learner
The current situation has more people than ever working from home, many with little or no experience in doing so. While I’ve seen several great resources with general best practices for working from home with sanity, structure and productivity, I’ve not yet seen anything focused on the effective use of video. If asked, I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert, but it’s become apparent to me from stories friends – stories that would fall distinctly into the category of video don’ts – that many of my colleagues and I have knowledge and experience with video from our years of heavy use that might be useful and timely for others.
Have what you need within arm’s reach
Working from home still requires preparation. Ensure you have what you most need within reach before you are on the video call. Ideally, you don’t want to find yourself having to get up and move around a lot while you’re on camera. There are many reasons for this, from the visual distraction it creates to noise generated by movement. No one really enjoys staring at someone’s empty chair. Anticipate you will likely need at least: something to take notes on and with, your phone, water or something to drink, eyeglasses if you need them.
Keep it clean
For those who like beverages with them while working, make sure your beverage of choice is a safe distance from your equipment. There’s nothing worse than having a sweet sticky coffee beverage spill all over your workspace and equipment, especially if you’re on a call at the time. On a related note, while it might be fine to eat in a conference room with others, or on a call without video, it’s awkward to watch someone eat on camera. Even if the group or company norm is to use video, it’s perfectly acceptable to say on a small group call, “I’m eating lunch and have my camera off. I’ll be back on video when I’m done.”
Check the placement of your camera
Not only should it be in front of you, but also at a good height. It will feel more natural to those seeing you to view you at “eye level” (and for those of us concerned with the vanity police – even now – it is more flattering than a low angle on your face or a camera focused on the top of your head). You can check your video before you are on video. It’s easy to use coffee table books or something else to elevate your laptop slightly if you need to.
Notice what is in the field of view
What will people see behind you? Are you comfortable with it being seen by family and friends, colleagues, or even strangers? Adjust accordingly, and again, check this before you’re on a call. An additional note on this that in a perfect world you would not have any/many reflective surfaces behind you. They produce glare, and for the privacy minded, also show other angles on the room you are in and what is around you. Eyeglasses do the same. Consider the placement of the items around you in a two-dimensional way. You don’t want it to look – on camera – like there is a plant growing out of your head. I can’t tell you how many times I notice that the person on video clearly chose something visually attractive to have behind them like a lovely piece of art, but didn’t consider themselves in the image that would be viewed by others.
Consider the sounds around you
There are limits on what we can control in our immediate environment, but do your best to manage the sounds you can. Remember that humming, beeping, or notifying devices and typing will all be picked up, and will seem much louder to call participants than they do to you. Remember, too, that if you are using your laptop, or even a headset for audio, you need to confirm tthe microphone is working well and that you can be clearly heard. People frequently sound like they are in a tunnel when using their laptop microphone.
Keep your appearance simple
When it comes to personal appearance, the primary goal is simply to minimize distractions. In the current climate, it is even more acceptable than usual to be dressed casually. Still, people seeing you through the camera’s eye will notice anything visually dissonant. Hair standing straight up, busy or distracting jewelry that moves or makes noise when you move, patterns, collars that hit you at a weird angle, or worse, that aren’t visible and make it look like you are just a floating neck and head, are best avoided. Strong bold solid colors are flattering.
Lighting is important
It is, in most places, hard to get ideal light. Rooms that feel perfectly well-lit when you’re working in them may come across too dark to others through video. Natural light from windows can also be problematic or enhancing depending on the angle and the proximity of the window to the camera’s subject (i.e., you). Play around with this. Make sure you don’t have vertical or horizontal blinds casting lines across your image. Not only is it distracting, but the moving pattern of lines over an animated person can actually be a migraine trigger for some people. If you can, consider having a lamp located at either 10:00 or 2:00 of your camera, about 18” or so from your face. It casts a warm and natural glow. This doesn’t need to be anything special, an inexpensive lamp with a 60 watt bulb and a lampshade is fine. Task lighting doesn’t work well. Lighting sets a tone, regardless of whether we intend for it to do so.
You’re talking to people
I think this is one of the more nuanced aspects of using video. Instead of thinking you are speaking to the device you are looking at, tell yourself you are looking at someone you care about, or even love. This doesn’t have to be true. The way we look at people we love is generally with a softer gaze that communicates a natural warmth. In one presentation skills class I attended, we were encouraged to tape a photo of someone we love to the top of our phone as a visual reminder that we are speaking to people, not things. The same could be done with your laptop or tablet.
Your voice matters
In a similar vein, think about your vocal quality. Our voices have a natural degree of vocal variety or prosody (i.e., intonation, volume, pitch, rhythm). This is more evident when people are relaxed. It is far more pleasant to speak to and listen to people who convey a pleasant vocal quality; we want to listen.
Check in with the people you’re on a call with. At the beginning of the call you might ask, “Can you hear and see me clearly?”. If you are sharing content via an application, it’s also a good practice to verbally orient people to what you are sharing and confirm they are seeing the material as you anticipated, not a different slide deck or application that you planned to share.
Know when the camera is on
Video offers us a wonderful means for connecting with others, whether for work or with family and friends. It helps us bridge the distance. However, feeling and being closer to others through video doesn’t mean we want to be exposed to all of one another’s habits and actions. What you are doing, others may be viewing. There are too many unfortunate examples of this going awry. Know how to ensure your camera is off when you think it is, and set aside the time you need for other activities.
We can’t always have the in-person meetings we want to have. Distance, cost, and at the moment a global public health crisis, may limit our ability to travel for business or to see those we love. The ubiquity of video means we can see and connect with one another from afar more easily than at any other time. Having some best practices may make your use of video more comfortable and effective.