Turn on your camera!


Working from home has been our new normal for almost a year now. Employees as well as students spend their days in online video conferences. There’s no better alternative, unfortunately, but we should be very grateful that this is even possible nowadays. What if this pandemic had occurred twenty years ago, when online possibilities were still very limited – we would have been much worse off!

During the past year, I took part in several meetings during which a few individuals had their cameras turned off while the rest of the participants had theirs turned on. I immediately noticed that those who hadn’t turned on the camera felt less present to me than those who had. I’m not talking about lectures, or meetings with fifty people, where turning off the camera seems to be the norm.

I’m someone who feels free enough to ask these people why they didn’t turn on their camera. What I want to communicate with that question most of all, is that I would like to see them, instead of just hear them. Some people respond by turning on the camera, but people also sometimes tell me that they’re still in their pyjamas, haven’t taken a shower yet, or that they’re having a ‘bad hair day.’ I understand perfectly well that you don’t feel comfortable when someone sees you like that, and that you prefer not to turn on your webcam. However, I would like to emphasize for a moment why it is so very important to turn on your camera. I’ll summarize it in three points.

  1. Engagement. There is some truth to the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ As I briefly pointed out earlier: when you don’t turn on the camera, you feel less present to others. Of course, you can do some multitasking when your camera is off, pay less attention to the meeting itself, go through that pile of emails, or watch a movie in the background. Your team won’t be able to see whether you’re actually taking part in the meeting. However, that will make them question your involvement. Is that what you want your fellow team members to think?
  2. Connection.  Now that working from home has become the norm, it’s more important than ever to spend energy into creating a sense of connection among team members. When you see someone in front of you, even if it’s only on a screen, you create a psychologically much more authentic connection with that person. Seeing someone convey information makes it easier for us humans to retain that information than when we only hear it. Communication by a living person standing in front of you has been the standard during the past hundreds of thousands of years; we’re geared to that way of communicating. And since it’s a lot easier to retain information that way, teams can work much more efficiently. And as an additional advantage, you’ll have more time in the morning to fix your hair before the first video-call of the day.
  3. Non-verbal signals. Apart from the fact that people remember things better when they see you tell it, it’s also important for the speaker to read the facial expressions of fellow team members so that he or she knows how the message is being received. A nod of agreement, a smile of appreciation, or the opposite, such as shaking the head to indicate disapproval, or rolling the eyes as a sign of envy – all parts of the puzzle called communication. When someone has the camera turned off, there simply isn’t any non-verbal communication. You can’t give someone the confidence or happiness they deserve, which is what you would have done had that person been sitting opposite you. When verbal commentary is at a minimum, the person transmitting information has no idea how the message came across. You might assume that the message was well received, because no one commented, even though most of the participants in the meeting were sitting behind their laptops with bewilderment in their eyes. Unfortunately, this will stay unnoticed. And that causes misunderstandings.

And when you turn on your camera, don’t try to look at your second screen all the time, no matter how convenient that screen is! The best way to make eye contact is by looking straight into the camera when you are speaking. This also makes it easier for the receiver to let the message sink in.

Summing up: turning on your camera makes working together more pleasant, efficient and effective, and it leads to more connection. Is a ‘bad hair day’ really a good enough reason to miss out on these opportunities?

Share this article