Virtual meetings through Zoom, Skype, and other applications have exploded in recent years mainly due to the social distancing required by the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time, individuals needed to conform to etiquette that people should follow when participating in virtual calls. That often includes using a professional background, placing yourself on mute if you are not communicating, and wearing appropriate clothing even though you may be taking the call in your home. One custom I think people should follow during virtual calls is that absent extraordinary circumstances, either everyone should be on camera during the call, or no one should.
Conference calls have existed in the legal industry for many decades, and they are an effective way to bring people together to discuss a given issue. Everyone is used to dialing a conference call number, and perhaps an access code, in order to participate in a conference call with other stakeholders to a matter. One of the reasons why virtual conferencing applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and others have exploded in recent years is because these resources permit people to see each other during virtual meetings. Individuals undoubtedly have a better connection with one another if they can see each other’s faces, and this takes the conversation to a different level.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to a Microsoft Teams call with five or six other stakeholders to a given deal with which I was involved. Before joining the call, I made sure that my area was tidy, and I also put on a more professional shirt so people wouldn’t see the gym clothes I usually wear when I do work while lounging around my home. I then logged onto the call, put on my camera, and waited for everyone else to join the call.
When each person joined the call, they kept their cameras off. We then jumped into the conversation we were supposed to have, and I was the only person who was on camera during the call. About five minutes after everyone began speaking, I decided to just turn off my camera. There did not seem to be any reason to keep my camera on if everyone else had theirs turned off, and it is easier to multitask if you do not need to worry about being seen on camera while you perform other tasks.
Of course, people might have very good reasons for not being able to turn on their cameras while they attend virtual calls. Many people might attend virtual calls while they are walking between meetings, or frequently, while they are driving. It is very difficult, and perhaps a little dangerous, to be on camera during a virtual call if you are completing another task, and sometimes, this is unavoidable. Moreover, sometimes people do not want to appear on camera since they are not wearing appropriate clothes or do not want to broadcast to others where they are at the moment. People also often need to work in unusual locations, and individuals may not want to show their backgrounds during a virtual call since this could cause embarrassment.
However, if you do not have some extenuating circumstance, it usually pays to be on camera during a virtual call. People naturally have a more significant impression of someone after seeing them than just after “seeing” their voice. Indeed, during the pandemic, I had numerous virtual calls with adversaries, clients, and the like, and this was almost as good as meeting these individuals in person. The same cannot be said of merely interacting with someone via an audio connection. This seems just one-dimensional, and communicating by telephone or audio app is just not going to be as effective as turning on that camera and participating in a call in which all participants can see you.
Of course, going on camera during virtual calls requires more effort than keeping the camera off. Indeed, this may require participants to clean their area, put on different clothes, and make other arrangements to come off as more professional. However, this is well worth the benefits of increased connectiveness during a call. And if people do not want to put that investment into a call, that’s okay, too. But since communication is a multiparty process, it is typically not fair for one party to go on camera during a virtual call while other people communicate with the participants with their video off.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.