What’s Up With Video Hesitancy?

A few years ago, I was about to participate in a virtual meeting. I had arrived early and there was only one other person on the call. She leaned over virtually and whispered to me:

Hey Frank, not sure if you’re aware but your camera is on.”

She thought she was doing me a favour by letting me know so that I could turn off my camera before everyone else arrived. Instead, I whispered back:

“I know. Why not turn your camera on?”

I can only imagine the surprised look on her face at my response. It was as if I had asked her to deliver a keynote speech to a packed house.

At the time, we all had the luxury of in-person meetings. Videoconferencing was available but its use was limited to people who could not attend meetings in-person. It was an indispensable tool for businesses with many physical locations.

However, despite the ready availability of “video”, most videoconferences ended up being audio-only conferences. Your conferencing screen filled with plain old name tags and the occasional profile picture. It’s like purchasing a Ferrari and never shifting it out of first gear or worst yet, just leaving it in the garage for show.

I never understood why people who had no problem meeting others face to face for in-person meetings, would go out their way to turn their cameras off for virtual meetings. It’s like showing up at an in-person meeting with a bag over your head.

During the pandemic, virtual meetings have become the norm. Videoconferencing has become the primary platform for these virtual meetings. With the complete absence of face-to-face interactions, one would think that now would be the time to take that Ferrari out of the garage and turn on our cameras every chance we get. To maintain a semblance of face-to-face engagement. No such luck.

Video hesitancy continues to prevail during the pandemic.

Videoconferencing platforms continue to be used as an audioconferencing tool. Why is that? Here are the most common reasons I’ve heard for not turning the camera on:

  1. I’m having a bad hair day
  2. My room is a mess
  3. I’m eating
  4. My camera is not working
  5. I simply don’t want to

Truth be told, I’ve been guilty of #3 on more than one occasion. Reason #5 may be the most brutally honest.

On the other hand, there are occasions where turning cameras off may be appropriate. What’s deemed appropriate should be left up to the people and/or teams you work with. Here are a few examples I can think of:

  • Attending a virtual presentation or webinar. Audience focus should be on the presenter(s) and shared content not on each other.
  • Attending a virtual meeting as a silent observer. Daily stand-ups are for the team members on camera. Anyone else are welcome to observe and listen but should be on mute and have their cameras off to avoid distracting the team.

One video hesitancy exception I’ve noticed is during virtual social events, such as Virtual Pub Nights. During those events, almost everyone turns on their cameras to unwind and raise a glass of cheer. Well, at least I know their cameras work.

When we don’t turn our cameras on, studies indicate the fidelity of our communications with each other decreases by up to 55%.

Moreover, it can be perceived as being just plain rude. Kinda like speaking to someone who’s got their back turned towards you the whole time.

Turns out one of the most common reasons why so many people don’t turn their cameras on during the pandemic is none of the above. It’s so they can “multitask”.

Have you noticed the volume of meetings seems to have increased during the pandemic? With back-to-back meetings from morning through night including meetings to catch up on missed meetings, it’s little wonder that people are using meeting time to catch up on the work they’ve neglected in favour of meetings. The most obvious tell for multitasking is people responding to a question with:

Sorry I missed that. Could you please repeat the question?

So if multitasking during meetings is inevitable during this era of work-from-home, what can we do about it? How can we mitigate video hesitancy? Here are some ideas to try:

  1. Start a meeting with a warm-up activity that involves each attendee showing something on camera. Be prepared to help people figure out how to turn on their cameras.
  2. Encourage people to turn on their cameras during short meetings such as the daily 15-minute stand-up. The shorter the meeting, the less likely multitasking will occur.
  3. Invite people to turn on their camera when speaking. Mention they’ll be 55% more effective in conveying their message.
  4. During lengthy large group meetings, include smaller breakout sessions that involve camera on activities. It’s too easy for people to disengage, hide behind their virtual name tags and multitask in large groups.
  5. Ask your leaders to model the way by turning their cameras on at all times. Gallup estimates that 70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager. The majority of the world still lives by the adage, “Whatever interests my manager, fascinates me”
  6. Make #VideoOn a ground rule or team norm. It’s hard enough forming and gelling as a remote team without any physical connection.
  7. Hold a virtual social fun event where cameras are not optional.

At the end of the day, retaining as much semblance of real human connection in our physically disconnected world is essential to the health of ourselves and our teams. I feel eliminating video hesitancy in our remote-first world will go a long way to enabling that. Video is a gateway drug to higher performance of remote teams. It’s time to use videoconferencing to videoconference.

The only hesitancy I have is forcing people to turn on their cameras. It’s not sustainable. I always invite people to turn on their cameras. As with any invitation, it can be declined for whatever reason. Hopefully over time, more and more invitations will be accepted. There’s so much more to see beyond Alexander Graham Bell.

Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you.” [First intelligible words spoken over the telephone]

– Alexander Graham Bell (March 10, 1876)

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