The coronavirus pandemic has forced Steve, a 36-year-old family doctor in Ohio, to conduct much of his work online, and video calls now make up a significant portion of his day. Steve doesn’t mind Zoom meetings — “The pluses outweigh the negatives,” he says — but he’s noticed a creeping trend that’s starting to bother him, namely a requirement by meeting leads for attendees to turn their cameras on. “I find it uncomfortable trying to recreate the same norms for in-person meetings to suit the at-home workspace,” he explains. “I always fidget and swing around during video calls, and I even annoy myself looking at that on camera. If the camera is off, though, I feel like I can be more comfortable and less stressed.”
In a COVID world, more and more workers are in Steve’s position. Video calls are now mandatory for everything from daily work meetings to networking activities, and because people are spending so much more time on platforms like Zoom, new rules of etiquette are emerging. One of the more contentious of those rules is that, rather than letting them participate in the video call with their camera off, bosses and managers are requiring workers to have their camera on, so that the speaker can see the people they’re addressing.
On a certain level, this seems fair enough: It can be disconcerting for the meeting lead to have to speak to a bunch of blank squares, and seeing people’s faces more closely approximates the experience of an in-person meeting. But the requirement to reveal your face and body, as well as the room you’re in, is creating difficulties for lots of workers — and this is especially true when workers are expected to be available for Zoom calls without notice, which several say they are.
“My main issue is my direct manager, who loves video chats and will just call us unannounced, expect us to keep our cameras on and just talk for hours,” says Tania, 30, who works in media in Australia. “I find it draining and it makes it harder for me to focus on tasks, and I need a break after the calls.”
A common complaint about the camera requirement is that it forces workers to reveal their class position. It becomes clear, for example, who can’t afford a dedicated home office; who has patchy, unreliable Wi-Fi; who lives in a small apartment with roommates and shared spaces; and who can’t palm off childcare to a nanny or partner. “My working-from-home ‘office’ is in my bedroom, as my flat doesn’t have space anywhere else,” explains Joel, a 39-year-old project manager in Australia. “The camera faces my bedroom door, which is where I hang some jackets and bags because my flat doesn’t have tons of storage space.” Joel describes this as “embarrassing,” but says that his boss “guilt trips” employees into showing their faces. “It’s easy for her,” Joel continues, “because she lives in a giant house with an office built in specifically.”
Workers and students also resent that unexpected Zoom meetings with camera requirements mean they need to suddenly don formal attire, despite spending most of the working day looking like the girl from the “You’re beautiful” meme. As Tania says, you “have to chuck on pants in a rush” when the boss calls unexpectedly. And while workers were obviously expected to dress professionally during work hours in a pre-pandemic world, it’s less reasonable to require that when employees are working from home — and not just because formal attire feels stuffy and odd at home, either. It gets very hot in Joel’s Sydney home, for example, so he’s often working shirtless or in a singlet. He says it’s “annoying” to have to get dressed up “for a superfluous requirement like being seen on camera” only to then have to strip again to avoid overheating.
Joel’s example points to a wider problem, namely that some bosses are using the new work-from-home requirements as an excuse to offload their costs and obligations onto employees, without even allowing them extra flexibility in exchange. It’s one thing for a boss to insist on formal dress and ready attendance in meetings if they’re also providing an air-conditioned office full of meeting rooms, but it’s quite another for them to force these requirements on employees who are working in suboptimal conditions at home, where they’re often expected to foot the bill for their own office expenses.
Workers also say that camera requirements create a strange feeling that they’re under surveillance in their own homes. “It feels like a way to check in on you, even though not much can be gleaned from having video on,” says Sarah, 31, who works in e-commerce and digital marketing in Australia. “It just feels more intrusive.” Enbyss, a 21-year-old software developer in Malta, agrees. “As a trans person, I’m using this time [working from home] to simply live as myself, and that means in appearance as well, by presenting as… well, ‘feminine’ isn’t perfectly accurate, but presenting as not male specifically, including by wearing makeup,” they say. “It’s a time where I can express myself while I’m working because no one has to see me, and being forced to turn the camera on hinders that.”
Given the relative ease of initiating a video call, workers are also reporting an endless proliferation of pointless Zoom meetings, many of which aren’t planned in advance. This makes it more difficult for workers to structure their days and creates a distraction that they say makes it hard to focus — an already tough task during a pandemic. “I’ll try and eat outside of the calls, but when they’re unpredictable and long, I do find myself pushing back meal times,” Tania notes. “Plus, there’s the general self-consciousness of staring at yourself and making sure your background is okay.”
This is a point that comes up time and again: Video calls make workers and students self-conscious, a factor which makes Zoom calls more draining than regular meetings. “It’s like having a little mirror next to you,” says Ellinor, a 25-year-old grad student in California. “So, it’s easy to become self-conscious and aware of how you’re sitting and how your surroundings look, and because you don’t get the normal feedback that you’d get in a physical setting, like body language and other nonverbal cues that are harder to pick up on Zoom, it almost feels like everyone is looking at you at all times.”
There’s a strong sense among workers that camera requirements are a way for bosses and managers to force them to pay attention, a strategy they say is misplaced: If anything, it’s harder to pay attention when you’re constantly focusing on what you look like, feeling resentful that you had to throw on a suit for a pointless and unexpected meeting or suffering embarrassment about how your one-bedroom apartment compares to your boss’ sprawling mansion. Paradoxically, Ellinor says, the camera requirement ends up creating “a weird, hostile environment where people seem less likely to speak up.”
So what can bosses and managers do instead? “I think just audio, no video, is perfectly adequate,” Sarah says, in a representative comment. “I don’t think video adds anything worthwhile.”