Louise Thomson: Drinking on the job and cats on screen – an ABC of Zoom faux pas

It's been 12 weeks of lockdown and remote working and if you aren’t a videoconferencing expert yet, you will be by the time we accept the ‘new normal’.

However, we’re not all as well housetrained in the polite practices required to make it a success. Here’s my ABC of videoconferencing faux pas.

Attire

Lockdown has seen me mothball my suits for the foreseeable (I just hope I can still get in them when I do have to go back to the office). But, as someone who regularly worked from home before the pandemic, it has also seen me smarten up what I do wear in front of the screen – because you never know when that impromptu videocall from the boss to check on your mental health will come in.

As a result, I have had to moderate my attire, to be business-like without actually being business-dressed. This is not the approach of everyone. Some are more laid back about such things, but they don’t need to flaunt it by reclining in their double divan with bedhead and jim-jams.

Beverages

In the office an individual’s mug was sacrosanct – to be respected and not abused. The dainty teapot, cup and saucer or the biggest mug stained with black coffee represented who we are. But we probably wouldn’t all use them in board or client meetings – especially the one with the slogan ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’.

Furthermore, having a tipple during office hours might be appropriate if you’re an oenologist or taking part in a virtual social event towards the end of the day, but having a teabag tag dangling from a wineglass in other circumstances is unlikely to convince people that you’re drinking iced tea.

Camera apertures and angles

Videoconferencing does lend itself to inviting people into your home, whether you want to or not. For some, there is a deep desire not to give too much insight into their personal space. This can result in the false background chosen from a range of options, or the speaker peering out through a slot reminiscent of the cell door watch windows seen in many police dramas.

Similarly, but sufficiently different is camera angle. Ultimately, the issue here is the olfactory organ. Most are fortunate to have a nose which suits the rest of their face, and seeing it from the side or straight on (no pun intended) can lend an air of gravitas to an individual. This is not the case when you provide someone with an almost medical insight into the nasal cavity.

Also in this category are perfect views of the dining room chandelier, the 90-degree ‘jaunty’ angle and the half-head decapitation. For the sake of everyone else not wanting to be familiar with your nose hair, please people – check the little picture of yourself on the screen and move the laptop accordingly.

Digital natives and dinosaurs

The more tech-savvy have embraced videoconferencing with a speed and dexterity that is a wonder to behold – if somewhat enviously when they effortlessly share documents and make notes on screen as the conversation flows. I am more of a Max Headroom. Youtube it if you missed the ‘80s.

Enter stage left

This is the equivalent of ‘unknown object in the bagging area’, the supporting actor stealing the scene. I hold my hand up to having pre-ordered a hot beverage from the other half at a particular time in the meeting. It keeps me refreshed, caffeined up and him in his place (joke). But no one wants to be upstaged by the rear end of Tibbles, the ginger cat. For others keeping the cute toddlers out of view will be the main challenge. Admit defeat now.

Forget the camera – don’t

Personal grooming can go two ways. First, there’s the selfie make up and hair refresh. Second, there’s excavations of the nasal cavity. I’ll leave that there.

Gravitas

Deciding where to hold your online call can be a real dilemma. Too serious, too trivial, too untidy, too sterile? This has led to many deciding that their preferred backdrop is their bookcase. Winnie the Pooh, Dan Brown, Encyclopedia Britannica: what do those shelves say about you? This has given rise to a social media account (BookcaseCredibility @BCredibility) which deconstructs a person’s very being, gravitas and credibility via the contents of their shelves.

It has also created another lockdown trend: colour-coding your book collection. As someone who always stored CDs alphabetically, this trend places me in a bit of a dither. How can I possibly find a particular book if I can’t remember the colour of the cover jacket, I usually struggle to remember the title and author correctly!

Hearing the gaps and filling the vacuum

The time lag between someone finishing speaking and another starting can be excruciating for those that can’t get used to the delayed ebb and flow of videoconferencing conversation. It plays havoc with our established speaking patterns and can often lead to people being talked over. Holding yourself back from jumping in to fill the gap is a lockdown challenge bar none for the extrovert. Alternatively, for ‘Today’ listeners, the gaps between each item is an opportunity to offer listener feedback and commentary, often of the ranty kind.

Louise Thomson is a Charity Times columnist and head of not-for-profit at The Chartered Governance Institute. For professional guidance around virtual board and committee meetings, download the institute's free guidance here.

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