It’s the question facing everyone working from home, day in and day out: when it comes to Zoom etiquette, what background should be used? Do you jump on a video call as is: just you in the frame, with whatever is behind you being visible? Is the right call to blur out the background, so you are visible but your background is nothing but fuzz? Alternatively, do you make a statement with a custom background graphic? Or do you pretend it is 2019 and stick to only voice, with no video visible at all?
Each option sends a very different message to your Zoom audience.
The IRL Background
The real-life background. Once the only choice for anyone in a video meeting; now it is one of several available options. Most will say the original video background is still the best choice because it shows you as your essential self. It’s transparent. “Here I am,” it says, “this is where I work, warts and all.” With an IRL background, you come across as open and inviting, someone with nothing to hide. And there’s always a little risk to it, which is part of the charm of an IRL background: maybe a kid runs into the frame; maybe a co-worker lingers too long in the background. But these things are all ok; it shows you’re a real person, with co-workers and a family, just like everyone else.
Of course, nobody wants a mess in their background, and proper lighting is a must. Let’s avoid this:
Which is why, charming as IRL may be; it's not really real life. Like Instagram, it’s a curated version of our world. It’s the world we want relative strangers to see. IRL backgrounds turn everyone’s desk into a mini-set, where the lighting and accouterments must be perfect… or at least whatever’s visible by camera must be perfect.
So this background is bland, but fine…
Just make sure the camera doesn't display a wider image than expected!
The counter-argument to IRL backgrounds is that it is elitist and invasive. What if your circumstances dictate a working environment that’s not conducive for IRL, or communicates the wrong image to your colleagues? And why should coworkers be allowed to see your personal home workspace? Isn’t remote work intrusive enough? For the truly egalitarian, IRL is a distinct no.
The Humble Brag Background
Tidy, professional environments aren’t enough for some folks. Sometimes, the IRL background needs to make a statement. Hence, the Humble Brag Background. It is a real background, but it also sends a message. “Look, I'm working from the beach,” it may say, “and you are not!”
Let’s be clear: despite whatever may have been modesty professed by the purveyor of this background, that beach shot was a choice. After all, they could have chosen this background, achieved by sitting on the floor of their hotel room, against a wall:
Besides amazing venues for a video background, another trick from the Humble Brag Background playbook is the use of small items of note that make an impact. Most won’t notice it, but the few who do will be impressed.
Look at the art book on the table... what an intellectual!
Wow, a golfer… and not just any golfer, a golfer that wins awards!
The Art Background
One problem with IRL backgrounds is that often, they’re simply boring. Most people, by virtue of where they are sitting, will end up being on video as a face against a bland wall. It happens more often than you think... after all, if your desk is facing out into a room, then only a wall will be behind your face. A head against a white wall can be creepy and devoid of personality. The solve: art.
The art background is used by people who want to add a little personality to an otherwise nondescript, bland wall background. It’s accomplished by hanging art, partially or fully visible, on the wall that’s in the view of the computer’s camera. The art is a thought starter, and conveys some personality.
Here's someone a bit cool and with some edge:
Bland art like this suggests a person to be taken seriously. The plant adds to the trust. It’s almost like you’re at the doctor’s office.
Avoid the Fuzzy Person Trap
Another way to go: artificial backgrounds. These are backgrounds that blur or backgrounds that are just a big image. Before you go down this road make sure you like how you look with the fake background turned on. Because often the technology that separates you from the background isn’t great, and you end up being something not quite human: a Fuzzy Person. Avoid at all costs becoming a Fuzzy Person; Fuzzy People never make the sale on Zoom.
In some cases, pieces of your chest are removed; other times, the edges of your body are hopelessly distorted:
Please test your artificial background before Zooming so you can be confident you won’t end up being a Fuzzy Person.
For those who are comfortable with how you look with a fake background, the question becomes: what background to have?
The JPG Background
Like the humble brag background, the JPG background is an opportunity to make a statement with the background you choose. There are three common options:
The Corporate Look
The corporate look is a completely generic corporate background. It’s a picture of an office, or a hallway, or some other non-descript work environment. Often, the logo of the Zoomer’s company is in the background. In other cases, the background is just an abstract design featuring the company’s logo. Either way, it says: “I’m serious, I’m at work, focus on me and ignore the background. This is work, get used to it, it’s not supposed to be interesting.”
The Aspirational Look
The aspirational background is an image of a place the Zoomer would like to be. Usually, it’s a glamorous vacation photo: a beach at sunset; a mountain range; a city skyline. The aspirational background may say “I’m a really fun person,” but the subtext is too often: “I’d rather be here than at work.” So be careful.
The Zany Look
The zany image is for the people who want to make a big statement with their background. Usually, it’s big, absurdist, and makes a statement about the Zoomer’s personal interests and the kind of person they are. It is used mostly by people senior enough to be secure in their job but not so senior that they’re the boss. It’s the background to use when you want to stand out and not be taken too seriously in your job.
Look, I’m in space and I love SciFi!
Look, I’m loud and obnoxious, just like my background!
Just don't take it too far, because no matter what you say or who you are, nobody’s taking you too seriously when your background is this:
The blur is the most difficult background to get right. It says one and only one thing: I don’t want you to see my background, so I’m blurring it. There is no other statement than: none of your business. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is entirely a matter of perspective.
For some, the message for blur is one of unbridled professionalism. “It’s not about my background, my home, my personal life, or anything that you, as a coworker, should know about,” it says. “What matters is me and what I have to say. So focus on me and only me; I’m blurring out the rest.”
But for others, blur means: “What are you hiding?” Some think: “If they’re working in a normal environment, why are they bothering to blur out the background? Why make the conscious decision to hide the background, and not show it to me?” In this context, the blur inevitably invites scrutiny, because when Zooms get boring, there’s nothing more fun than trying to figure out what got blurred.
Look at the red blob to the right of the screen… is it a sofa? A kids’ fire truck? A murder scene? The mind runs rampant with speculation.
No Video at All
There is one more viable option at your fingertips: just turn off the video.
In many cases, turning video off is not socially acceptable. After all, who wants to be the one black square in a checkerboard of smiling faces?
In fact social pressure is such that for a given meeting, everyone must typically be all on video or all off video, which is why the first few seconds of a Zoom are often quite awkward. Many Zoomers start with video off. An internal debate ensues: should they be the first to turn the video on, or hold out and hope nobody makes the jump to video? It’s a classic game of the prisoner’s dilemma. Everyone’s probably happiest if nobody is on video, but it is rude to be the one person not on video, so you turn your video on. Which forces everyone else to switch on their video as well.
Unless you are driving, in which case you can proudly announce why you are NOT on video.
If you are the boss, there’s no need for a driving excuse. You can get away with being off camera, especially if the meeting is large and you’re not really expected to participate in the meeting anyway. In this case, keeping the video off is fine because everyone expects you are only half-listening and are multi-tasking.
Or, if you’re ok being perceived as an SOB, and you really don’t care what others think about you, keep the video off! Be the jerk! Being off video when everyone else is on video is the ultimate power move... if you can get away with it. Because nothing is better than when you can scrutinize everyone in the meeting without letting everyone else scrutinize you back.
When it is time to make use of your background selection and video with your colleagues, remember this:
- No eating. Nothing is grosser than watching people munch away on Zoom.
- Get off mute. Don't be that luddite that talks while on mute, only to be reminded... "you're on mute!"
- If you can hear it, they can hear it. Be mindful of background noise. Everyone can hear the screaming child in the other room that you're trying so hard to ignore. Get noise-cancelling earbuds or leave the meeting and pay attention to your kid.
- Stop obsessing about how you look. Video quality is bad anyway and nobody's paying attention to the minutia of your appearance.
- Don't forget when video is on. Don't be that person who has so many windows open on your computer that you forget you're on video. People do not want to watch you work away on your computer, doing email or Excel, completely oblivious to the fact that you're being watched. Even worse, "candid camera" situations are often coupled with your audio being turned off, so there’s no way for people to get your attention to stop the humiliation. Hopefully nothing inappropriate ensues.