By now many of us have been faced with the decision of whether to have cameras on or off during our Zoom meetings. For those of us who don’t have cameras, the decision is easy. But for us who do, and who have enough internet horsepower, there are many factors which go into our thinking about when to turn them on and when to keep them off. This was the focus of a couple of recent “Town Hall” events held by the ETSU Ballad Health Strong BRAIN Institute.
With our camera on, we put ourselves out there. Everyone on the call can see us, but they can also judge us. Some might say we’ve always been on display when we’ve attended meetings, and they would be partially right but mostly wrong. Zoom calls are not the same as in-person meetings. Being on camera in our homes during a pandemic is not the same as showing up well-prepared for an in-person meeting or class.
Face-to-face meetings in Zoomlandia are different than in-person ones. Having children pop into the meeting didn’t used to happen, but it’s common now. Kittens hop on our laps, dogs bark, and internet glitches freeze our faces in unflattering ways. Beyond these obvious differences are more subtle ones, and we reveal things about ourselves that should remain private. When observing others during a Zoom call, we might ask, “Is she in her bedroom? Doesn’t he have a comb?”
We also judge our own images. Looking at ourselves didn’t happen at in-person meetings. It’s exhausting. Fortunately, Zoom provides a feature to turn off our own image while keeping the camera on for others to see. Still, we’re predisposed to monitor our self-presentations to ensure we look good. Social pressures are intense even in the virtual world.
It’s not always our choice to have cameras on or off. There’s the pressure of conforming to meeting expectations. Sometimes we’re told what to do. If what we’re told aligns with our personal preferences, great. But if what we’re told goes against our grain, we can become resentful or even fearful. Negative emotions interfere with our contributions to the meeting and ultimately even undermine the reasons for which we were invited to attend.
Our goal for the Town Halls was to promote resilience by listening to community stakeholders and to guide meaningful discussion about how to be our best selves during a Zoom meeting. A number of key take-aways emerged.
First, it’s important to provide safe, nonjudgmental spaces for attendees to make decisions about whether to have cameras on or cameras off. Safe spaces promote resilience and facilitate meeting engagement and efficacy.
Second, we need to give grace to those whose presence and efficacy are challenged by life during a pandemic. Attendees may be working from home; they may have pets, kids, or other family members in the background; they may have to answer the door; and they may not look their best.
Third, we should establish expectations, or “comfort agreements,” at the beginning of a call. These can be displayed on an opening PowerPoint slide or the chat box. They should represent expectations for the call. They might include prohibitions against eating, lax attire, or being unmuted; they might include rules of engagement (e.g., raise your hand before unmuting); and they might address having cameras on versus cameras off. As long as we’re warm and kind, it’s OK to be strong and in charge.
Fourth, in recurring meetings, we should establish rituals and check-in traditions. For smaller groups, these can be as simple as invitations to share a word or phrase that captures how attendees are feeling. And it helps if the host calls on attendees one-by-one. For larger meetings, attendees could be asked to share in the chat box. The hosting team can track these contributions to ensure the attendees’ contributions are acknowledged. Having rituals and traditions helps attendees anticipate what is expected and promotes social connectedness among attendees.
Fifth, we should “see” and acknowledge individuals for making contributions. (Fun fact: this is important in all meetings). If it’s a large group, it may take two or three team members to track whose turn it is to speak, who has their hand up, or who’s recently unmuted in preparation for speaking. We should assume that contributors are doing the best they can while maintaining earnest engagement with the discussion in the context of a pandemic, even if their contributions miss the point or are off the mark. What about negative or divisive comments? They can still be recognized but placed in the “parking lot” for later discussion. There is a reason for negative comments, and it’s really important to be curious about them, but maybe at a later point in time.
Finally, as we navigate through the unfamiliar, uncharted, and sometimes even scary waters of our virtual meeting spaces, it’s important to remember that we are not all the same. We bring different skill sets, talents, experiences, knowledge bases, and personalities into play. We in the ETSU Ballad Health Strong BRAIN Institute hope that these suggestions will help level the playing field in the service of providing the most efficient, productive, and effective meeting outcomes.
Dr. Wallace E. Dixon Jr. is Chair and Professor of the ETSU Department of Psychology, and Director of the ETSU Ballad Health Strong BRAIN Institute.