The Great Debate – to turn on webcams or not?

October 26, 2021 Share this article:

Webcam on or off

“I am so over Zoom. If I never see that little blue camera icon, a meeting link and passcode again, it would be too soon. As a good friend said of this video vexation that has engulfed our world over the past 18 months: “Turn the cameras off!” It’s definitely not healthy, or in any way useful, and no substitute whatsoever, for a face-to-face meeting.” - Sarah Buitendach

Sarah Buitendach, contributing editor at Financial Mail in South Africa, sums up what a lot of people are feeling about video conferencing. But from a leadership point of view things are not that simple. Given that work-from-home or hybrid working are still very much with us, what are the pros and cons of having team members turn their cameras on, or turn them off?

Benefits of keeping cameras on

For leaders in an organisation, there are many advantages to being able to see their teams in video conference meetings.

Top of the list is human connection. Digiday Magazine quotes Lou Banks, workplace psychologist and founder of culture consultants Rising Vibe, as saying that you cannot truly connect in a meeting without your camera on. “As humans we are hard-wired to connect, and any form of disconnect puts us in social pain. Turning a camera off is a clear indicator of disconnect.”

Staff well-being is much harder to monitor when people are working remotely. Keeping cameras on is a way for leaders to see how their employees are doing. One top manager says one of her employees routinely kept her video camera off and it was only after a lot of probing that the staffer admitted she was going through personal problems and didn’t want people to see her crying.

Meeting the needs of a diverse workforce is another reason to keep cameras on. Maddy Thomas, senior VP of people at digital consumer intelligence company Brandwatch in Boston, told Digiday that she believes that with a global workforce, and with English not being everyone’s first language, body language and visual cues are important to facilitating clear communication in meetings.

And keeping webcams on also increases the possibility of engagement, both for leaders and their teams. If participants in a call have video off, they may be tempted to multitask. “Knowing others can see you will help you listen, pay attention, and contribute,” says a Fast Company article.

Downsides of keeping cameras on

If there are powerful reasons for leaders to want cameras on in meetings, there are equally powerful arguments to turn them off.

Researchers from the University of Arizona Eller College of Management found during a four-week experiment that taking away video freed people up to stop concentrating on their own faces, and instead to focus on the content of the meetings.

Allison Gabriel, McClelland Professor of Management and Organizations and University Distinguished Scholar at the University of Arizona, and one of the study’s authors, told CNBC that people feel like they’re being “watched” on video calls, so they’re hyper-focused on their expressions and on how other people might perceive them. This gets tiring, which makes people less likely to engage and express new ideas in meetings, she says.

For some people, Zoom fatigue can lead to serious problems. The Guardian reports that researchers have noticed a phenomenon they’ve called “Zoom dysmorphia”. After months of remote meetings and social gatherings – and seeing their own faces on screen – more and more people are becoming fixated on perceived physical flaws. Shadi Kourosh, a Massachusetts dermatologist, coined the term after her clinic reopened for in-person appointments, when she noticed a huge uptick in consultations for cosmetic procedures such as Botox, injectable fillers and laser resurfacing.

So what should leaders do?

The solution is not to give up video conferences altogether, Professor Gabriel says, but to give people the autonomy to choose whether they’re on-camera or not. She says the assumption that you have to be on-camera to be engaged is outdated, and employees should feel empowered to talk to their colleagues and managers about camera etiquette and expectations for specific meetings.

Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, disagrees, telling CNN Business that making webcams optional is “similar to asking someone if they want to help out on a big project over the weekend. Many people will prefer not to do it, but all will feel pressure to say yes”.

Instead he suggests making cameras mandatory every once in a while. He advises managers to categorize their meetings into two types: ones in which seeing one another’s faces is critical, and others where screen sharing and talking with voices is sufficient. “When executives sit down and go through this process, they realize that there are a handful of meetings where you absolutely need to see faces,” he says.


Running a good meeting applies to Zoom too: As speaker and trainer Justin Hale points out: “If your co-workers don’t feel connected, valued, or a part of something, then it’s no wonder they don’t want to turn on their cameras.” He suggests allowing people to talk about their lives at the start or end of the meeting, keeping meetings short and giving people specific roles.

Keep your own camera on: Software business SAP encourages the use of cameras. But Malin Lidén, head of SAP’s EMEA marketing transformation office, told Digiday that managers must set an example and have their own camera on.

Mix it up: CNN Business reports that companies such as Citigroup, Dell and New York University have implemented policies such as “no Zoom Fridays”, encouraging people to take meetings by email or phone instead.

Get technical: Tell team members that is possible, in Zoom at least, to turn off the “self view”, while still being able to see everyone else on the call.

Remember that the webcam distorts the way people look: Kourosh says looking at yourself on a screen is more like looking in a funhouse mirror than an actual one. Front-facing cameras combined with a close focus can distort people’s appearance, making eyes look smaller and noses seem bigger.

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