Cameras on or Cameras off During Video Calls?
By Caitlynn Sendra, Ph.D. and Linda Grensing-Pophal
When millions of employees began working remotely in early 2020, technology tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams filled the gap, allowing face-to-face interactions from virtually anywhere. At first, many regarded video calls as saving the day. After two-plus years, though? Not so much.
Some employees have pushed back on requirements to keep their cameras on, with much ensuing discussion over whether remote meeting policies should take a hard line or flexible approach. Some can argue both sides.
“The manager in me knows that if we don’t require cameras to be on, the vast majority of our remote workers will probably keep them off, do the meetings from bed, or just generally take less interest in what is being discussed,” says Anastasia Allmon, a personal injury trial lawyer. But then, Allmon says, “there’s the employee in me.” That employee struggles, as many do, with the emotional and mental toll of mandates to keep video cameras on for a never-ending cycle of meetings.
"If they want to take their meetings from bed or in their pajamas because it’s more comfortable but they’re still able to get their jobs done, what’s the point of forcing them into a cameras-on video call?” she asks. Allmon says she’s still not sure where she stands, but that “it’s a very interesting debate.”
Even Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, speaking at the CEO Council Summit in 2021, admitted to suffering from “Zoom fatigue.” Many see video calls as more mentally taxing, placing a higher cognitive load on attendees and eventually contributing to employee burnout. There’s also evidence that some of the supposed benefits of engaging remotely using video simply don’t exist.
No wonder so many companies, and leaders, haven’t figured out where they stand.
So where does the data tell us to stand?
After several years of increased remote work and a daily regimen of video calls for many, plenty of research has examined the pros and cons of cameras-on policies. Psychologists, sociologists, business publications, and private sector companies have all delved into the topic.
Taken together, this research does not support a uniform, best-practice approach – but it does provide the basis for a clear-eyed look at common perceptions, myths, and misconceptions about how people and work are affected by video meetings. With that science-based grounding, we can provide practical advice on finding the right on-versus-off balance for your business.
Pervasive Myths and Misconceptions About the Benefits of Video Calls
Myth 1: Without video, employees pay less attention.
The data says: false
Many managers believe video interactions are necessary to maintain engagement and productivity. Research finds, though, that these interactions, especially when excessive, lead to more exhaustion and mental fatigue than in-person meetings. Data also indicates that these requirements can lead to lower engagement, the opposite of what managers want.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, one group of researchers reports, “Using the camera was positively correlated to daily feelings of fatigue; the number of hours that employees spent in virtual meetings were not. This indicates that keeping the camera consistently on during meetings is at the heart of the fatigue problem.”
The group’s 2021 study discovered that fatigue lessened employees’ sense of engagement and reduced their voices in meetings. It also found that being on camera was more fatiguing for certain groups, “specifically women and employees newer to the organization.” These groups, the researchers suggest, “generally face greater social pressures in organizations – they are often ascribed lower social status and are judged more harshly.”
The takeaway: On the whole, a blanket “cameras on for all meetings” dictum will eventually have the opposite of its intended effect. Beyond the question of fatigue, it can convey and create distrust, given the examples of companies using cameras to continuously monitor workers.
Myth 2: Sometimes cameras-off attendees aren’t working at all.
The data says: occasionally true
Beyond the simple question of focusing on what’s said in a meeting, some believe that off-camera employees are likely working on an unrelated task, at best, or perhaps are off to some other part of the house attending to personal chores. Wakefield Research conducted a Vyopta Survey of 200 U.S. executives at the VP level or above in large companies, which revealed that 93% of respondents felt employees with cameras off were paying less attention to their work and that they were likely:
▪ Browsing the internet (43%)
▪ Texting or chatting on the phone (40%)
▪ Doing other work (38%)
▪ Playing games (35%)
▪ Eating (35%)
Managers’ fears are not without foundation; some employees confirm them but also offer practical rationale for choosing to have their cameras off.
Researchers at Stanford explored the issue during an online academic workshop they conducted during the pandemic, in which attendees “unpacked various nonverbal actions taken in Zoom calls and the interpretations behind them.” While having cameras off was often attributed to negative motivations in others, attendees described their own reasons for having cameras off more favorably, giving “reasons such as wanting to eat while on the call, briefly attending to other in-person matters (e.g., answering the door or a phone call), and wanting some privacy (e.g., changing attire, using the restroom).”
The takeaway: Having cameras on should not be the measure of employee attentiveness. One-third of employees feel that meetings, in general, are unnecessary. Instead of requiring cameras to be on, be conscious about the purpose of the meeting and the people who are required to attend.
Myth 3: Video meetings replicate the in-person meeting experience.
The data says: mostly false
Speaking of purpose, video meetings sometimes recreate everything you’d want from an in-person confab. But for some types of meetings, they simply don’t.
For instance, evidence suggests that for brainstorming, video meetings are not the best option. In a paper published in Nature, researchers from U.S. universities Columbia and Stanford point out that “virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation – we find that videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus, but we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective when it comes to idea selection.” The researchers found that virtual pairs generated fewer total ideas (mean of 14.74) when compared to in-person pairs (mean of 16.77).
Melinda Marcus, a business consultant and author of the body-language book Read the Zoom, agrees, explaining that narrowed visual focus means “the brain will focus too much on the visuals of faces instead of focusing inward on ideas.”
Video meetings may also cause attendees to miss out on important nonverbal cues. Even though cameras-on offers the opportunity to see others and their facial expressions, which is often cited as a positive, it’s not easy to tell in video meetings what people are actually responding to. The visual inputs are more limited and more ambiguous than in-person meetings.
The takeaway: Video meetings are a useful option when in-person meetings aren’t possible, but some meetings really are better done face-to-face.
Myth 4: Video meetings make everyone feel included.
The data says: false
Remote connections have been pointed to as a benefit for some marginalized groups of employees – for example, by offering a more supportive and less stressful interaction for neurodiverse and other disabled employees, as the nonprofit organization Disability:IN notes. Not all, though, realize the same levels of benefit.
Evidence suggests that video calls can be more damaging to newer employees and women. For instance, research shows that women are held to a higher grooming standard in the office, which translates to more intense feelings of self-presentation, which leads to more exhaustion. A Stanford study also found that race was a factor, noting that “people of color reported a slightly higher level of Zoom fatigue compared with white participants.”
Video meetings also have the potential to invoke unconscious bias, according to Amy Bonomi, a social science researcher at Michigan State University. For example, she says, "when the virtual background of a Zoom meeting attendee has pictures of his or her wedding [with a spouse of the opposite sex], it unintentionally reinforces the idea that marriage is most fitting between opposite sexes."
The takeaway: Just because video meetings allow everybody to participate doesn’t mean the experience creates inclusivity or comfort for all. Marginalized groups in particular may be negatively affected.
Myth 5: It’s the screen that fosters fatigue.
The data says: false
Discussions about Zoom fatigue often refer to screen time as the factor that participants find tiring. But researchers say that’s not necessarily the case. In a report published in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers point to work by Robby Nadler, a director at University of California Santa Barbara, which “argued that Zoom fatigue is not caused solely by staring at a screen – a behavior we have been engaging in long before the pandemic – but rather by the complexity of the interpersonal interactions due to the specific spatial dynamics taking place in video conferences.”
The magazine Inc. reports that research from Reclaim.ai, a “smart calendar” startup, found the average time spent in meetings pre-pandemic was 14.2 hours each week; now it’s 21.5 hours. That’s not a screen problem; it’s a meeting overload issue.
The takeaway: Yes, videoconferences create fatigue. But the drivers behind that fatigue extend beyond screen time (and neither dark-mode applications nor no-glare monitors can completely fix it).
How to fight digital distractions
Strategies to minimize interruptions in a multi-app, multi-screen workplace.
Myth 6: Everyone hates video meetings.
The data says: false
Not everyone reviles these meetings or having their cameras on. Research by Kristine Kuhn, an associate professor at Washington State University, indicates that “for highly self-conscious people, more frequent self-view was associated with worse attitudes, and the opposite was true for those low in self-consciousness.” Similarly, a German study showed that 12% of employees found video meetings to be extremely useful to their work.
The takeaway: While coverage of “Zoom fatigue” has been prominent since the increase in videoconferencing during the pandemic, some do feel this meeting format has positive applications and benefits.
How to strike the right balance
Sorting through the research and media coverage, most organizations employ one of these six camera policy options – with or without factoring research findings into their decisions:
- Cameras always on, which is likely unnecessary for many businesses and has been shown to cause high levels of fatigue
- Cameras on unless individually excused, which may lead to perceived inequities or favoritism
- Cameras always optional, which research suggests may have unintended consequences related to inclusion and visibility for underrepresented groups
- Camera decisions left up to individual managers, which can lead to variation across the organization, potentially affecting not only unlucky individuals but also some groups that may be marginalized
- A certain day of the week designated Zoom-free, as Citigroup’s CEO did when she banned internal video calls on Fridays (not a comprehensive solution but popular with employees and can help reduce fatigue)
- Cameras required for only certain types of meetings, such as those involving customers or clients or when meeting colleagues for the first time
In determining how your organization will create or revise guidelines to find the right balance between cameras on and cameras off, important considerations can include:
- External versus internal participants. For example, your company may wish to require cameras when salespeople are meeting with amenable customers.
- Purpose of the meeting. For example, cameras-on may be preferable when active participation and engagement is required to achieve the objectives of the meeting, such as to deliver or share information or to have a discussion. (But not for brainstorming, as noted above.)
- Size of the meeting. A meeting between two people may require (or benefit from) both attendees having cameras on, but the larger the meeting, the less important this may be.
- Exceptional personal circumstances. Your company may outline situations in which individual employees may opt out of having cameras on. For instance, suffering from anxiety could be an exemption in the U.S. under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and some countries and courts have declared webcam-on policies inhumane. As reported by the World Economic Forum, “A Dutch court ruled that a workplace requirement to keep a webcam on violated the European Convention on Human Rights.”
As managers, supervisors, and others schedule meetings, in addition to adhering to organizational policies, they can also do the following to help minimize anxiety and fatigue:
- Consider whether a meeting is necessary at all. What work can be done asynchronously rather than in meetings? Long before videoconferencing was so prevalent, meeting fatigue in general was an issue in many organizations.
- Be clear in meeting invitations whether or not cameras will be required to be on and why.
- Consider “turn-taking.” For example, in a larger meeting, you might require the person presenting information to have their camera on while allowing others to have their cameras off.
- Switch some meetings to conference call format when possible. This removes any questions or concerns about camera usage.
When video is required, they can take additional steps to minimize the potential for fatigue and frustration among employees:
- Provide employees with the right equipment to improve their experience in video meetings: a high-quality camera (offering good lighting), a good microphone, and noise-canceling headphones to reduce distractions.
- Encourage employees to blur their backgrounds or use alternative backgrounds so that their personal settings are not shown.
Finally, they can share tips that workers can apply to their own participation, where applicable:
- Identify the source of any anxiety about video calls, which may not be screen-related. In an article on “Zoom anxiety,” Healthline suggests that “a good first step to navigating any type of anxiety involves narrowing down where it comes from.” Those sources may include technical issues, difficulty interpreting others’ nonverbal signals, back-to-back calls interfering with workload, trouble communicating ideas clearly, or unexpected visits from children or pets.
- Avoid multitasking. Yes, it can be tempting to check an e-mail, do a quick search, or engage in other activities while on a videoconference (especially if cameras are off), but in an article for Harvard Business Review, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy say, “Research shows that trying to do multiple things at once cuts into performance.”
- Minimize viewing your own image. If video is required and you find yourself distracted by how you appear on camera, PsychCentral suggests minimizing mirroring to make your own image less visible or switching to a speaker-only view. Some video platforms allow users to completely turn off their self-view to avoid distraction.
Adaptability is key
Even a well-considered policy founded in the research cited here is subject to change, just as the workforce and working environment are.
PEO Companies, which provides HR and regulation compliance services to small and medium-sized businesses, originally required everyone to have cameras on during video calls. But company manager Nelson Sherwin says, “We quickly discovered that while working from home, some of our people were also tending to other responsibilities, such as children and animals.”
Interestingly, though, the workers tending to those other responsibilities weren’t the ones who got distracted. “Some videoconferences got derailed by everybody wanting to know about the child or the animal that got in on the call,” Sherwin says.
The company changed its policy to make cameras optional. “Rather than having a distraction affect everyone on the call, we decided that having the option for cameras off was the best way to avoid having it continue to happen.”
Insights such as these may develop over time, prompting updates to your organizational policies and practices.
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