A New Taboo: Turning Off Your Camera

A survey finds nine in ten leaders take a dim view of employees not appearing on video calls. Is it a true measure of engagement?

After long days of online meetings with clients, the employee thought that turning off her camera during team meetings was appropriate: she participated fully, and her eyes just needed a break. Her boss felt otherwise, perceiving her to be less engaged.

A new survey finds that his perception is the norm: a survey of 200 executives at mid- to large-sized companies concluded that 92% of executives not only disapprove of deactivated cameras, but also think that staffers who deactivate them don’t have long-term futures at the firm. It’s the latest way that organizations, facing a tough economy, are pressuring staffs. “I’m not surprised,” says Maria Amato, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “Leaders can’t connect with their people if the camera is off.”

Before and during the pandemic, turning off the camera during an online meeting was considered normal behavior—the equivalent of a phone call. But since hybrid arrangements became the norm, going dark inadvertently sends the message that an employee is just doing their job and doesn’t want to truly connect. To bosses, the messaging is even worse: that the employee is not paying attention, especially if they make a habit of turning off their camera. “Managers assume the employee is not at their home office, phoning it in,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry.

Still, the pressure to be on camera, whether subtle or blatant, can backfire. Kaplan points out that a camera-on mandate (or strong preference) has more “impact on women, minorities, and people lower on the corporate ladder.” Women, for example, may be juggling more childcare or family duties than men, while those in lower income brackets may have roommates or live amid crowded conditions. Others may feel that they are playing a role that diverges from their identity and find it exhausting.

Experts say that the resentment from such pressure can quietly grow. Past studies have showed that half of employees have reported a “high degree of exhaustion” from taking so many video calls. What’s more, employees feel a double standard sometimes applies to video calls, because managers may convene them during their commute. One step is for leaders to stay present and active on any calls they arrange.

Many companies do offer training on screen presence for employees who work with clients, including lighting and positioning oneself in the frame for maximum approachability. “It’s become much more important to not only be on screen, but to create an environment that makes the client feel like the two of you are in the same room,” says Sharon Egilinsky, a partner in the Organizational Strategy practice at Korn Ferry.

Amato has advised leaders to increase their camera time, but to choose carefully in deciding when being on camera is essential. “Be strategic about when it’s advantageous to show your face,” she says.


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