As Videoconferencing Becomes the Norm, Some Question Whether It’s Hurting Business

A look into the psychology of informality

a man sitting at a desk in his underpants with a button-down shirt on and a martini next to his laptop
There's a high possibility that we'll come out of quarantine feeling a stronger bond with colleagues. Getty Images

Key insights:

If there’s any executive who understands the importance of professional behavior on a video conference call, it’s Frank Weishaupt.

Two years ago, the Boston-based serial entrepreneur took the helm as CEO of Owl Labs, whose core product was Meeting Owl, a 360-degree mic/speaker/camera combo that highlights everyone in a virtual meeting. Now, with prospects to call, clients to support and employees now working from home, Weishaupt hasn’t just been doing a lot of video conferencing lately—he’s been effectively showcasing his product through his own on-screen behavior.

It was unfortunate, then, that during a recent video conference, his 7-year-old son Cooper decided to be part of the meeting, too.

“[He] was playing dodgeball and ran into the screen in his underpants,” Weishaupt recalled. “They were BB-8 underpants from Star Wars. It’s not exactly the way I would have scripted it.”

Two or three weeks ago, it might have been easy to criticize such a lack of decorum, were it not for the fact that many of us have seen or been the source of moments similar to this one. Even before the onset of COVID-19 sent office workers home, 4.7 million Americans worked beneath their own roofs. Today, of course, that figure is many times higher—easily into the tens of millions.

For this newly created class of homebound 9-to-5 workers, the easiest way to maintain office protocols like staff and client meetings are videoconferencing tools like Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. And since a good many of the people using online video are new to these platforms—and new to working from home, period—the past couple of weeks have given rise not only to wide-eyed, kid-in-his-underwear moments, but to the sort of widespread insouciance that the average American office simply isn’t used to.

“Working from a home is a personal thing,” said Scott Cawood, CEO of HR executive association World at Work. “Employees are opening a very intimate part of their lives to their bosses and coworkers.”

Colleagues who’ve nary been seen wearing anything other than dress shirts and pressed blouses are now appearing on camera in hoodies, pajamas or even less than that. Professionals used to working at a desk are now installed on the sofa or in bed. Family members, paramours and pets make cameos in the frame as, of course, do people’s private living spaces—complete with dirty laundry on the floor and the sounds of flushing toilets in the background.

Or worse. There was the New York Post story about the university student who logged onto a video class just as her boyfriend rose buck naked from the sofa behind her. There was the BBC reporter on Skype who forgot that the camera was aimed at piece of artwork on the wall that showed a man fisting a cow. And there was the now-infamous instance of the woman who forgot her camera was on and sat down on the toilet.

“Right now, especially as people adapt to this change, [our colleagues are getting] a rare glimpse of our own living spaces,” said brand consultant and writer David Deal. “Sometimes the results are humorous and sometimes they’re a little unsettling, but they’re always interesting.”

Fortunately, most breaches of office etiquette are not this glaring. But if there’s a trend that’s emerged as much of America works from home, it’s this: Even in the age of the casual workplace, a new era of informality has arrived.

“This new paradigm has become the new normal, and what you’re seeing is the Venn diagram of public personas and private personas,” said Robert Passikoff, a psychologist and founder of consultancy Brand Keys. “It sets up a very interesting opportunity to judge people in ways that you probably never thought about.”

Yet therein lies a dynamic that should give every office worker pause. As millions of us are treated to fleeting-yet-telling glimpses into the personal realms of business partners and clients, could any of be affecting business itself? Is seeing a colleague with bedhead and a tank top undermining a workplace relationship? If the CEO appears onscreen sitting in front of a velvet Elvis painting on the wall, is his or her authority somehow lessened?

Experts agree it’s a stretch to suggest that all of this sudden informality might manifest itself on the balance sheet. But Passikoff said it’s also clear that the stolen looks many of us are getting into one another’s private lives are changing us—sometimes in ways we aren’t even aware of.

“You [may] not [be] reacting negatively, but I’d lay a million to one that you’re acting differently,” he said. “All of a sudden, your interactions have become different because now they’re being modified by information that you never had before.”

Will you still respect me after this meeting?

While it might be easy to raise an eyebrow at a colleague who’s wearing a stained T-shirt or trying to talk above the din of a barking dog, it’s worth pointing out that most office workers don’t actually want to be working from home right now.

Brian Kropp, research chief for Gartner’s HR practice, points to his firm’s finding that 75% of employees who have the option to work remotely still choose to head into the office. And since many enjoy the friendships, camaraderie and interpersonal banter that office settings can provide, Kropp ventures that the little slip-ups that happen during videoconferencing might actually be a substitution for the former.

“What’s actually going on with all of that is ways that people [are establishing a] proxy for emotional connections that they were getting when they came into the workplace,” he said. “So, to some degree it’s OK they’re doing it because people need those connections.”

Another truth to emerge from the Zoom era is that squirm-inducing moments are almost always unintentional. An employee sitting in bed, for example, might simply be there because it’s closest to the wireless router. As for the laptop cameras showing revealing scenes, Weishaupt pointed out that many people don’t understand that colleagues on a videoconference “might be able to view more than you can actually see yourself.”

Even so, is any of it harmful—to employees or to the companies they work for? Perhaps.

For one thing, humans are a judgmental lot and so, for instance, the employee with a decorating style that’s gaudy or tasteless might well suffer some reputational damage in the eyes of colleagues—damage that could potentially manifest itself at some later date.

Passikoff conjures the analogy of watching shows like Open House or MTV Cribs that lead viewers through celebrity mansions. Invariably, he said, a moment comes when the viewer thinks, “‘Wow, these people have no taste at all. They have money, but no taste,” Passikoff said.

“If you don’t think that one single episode has done something to the perception of that celebrity, you’re crazy,” he continued. “And the same model is in operation with businesspeople.”

This loss of collegial respect is likely to increase as you move up the corporate totem pole. Few people care that a 20-something colleague happens to live in a tiny, messy apartment full of used Ikea furniture, for example. But if it’s a senior vice president or the CEO, chances are high that they will be judged by their living spaces. And while a messy room or vulgar décor is bad enough, even a luxurious environment can be a liability in the eyes of the rank and file.

Deal argues that while employees getting an intimate glimpse at a senior executive’s pad (dogs, kids and all) can be a positive thing—“the more a serious executive shows their humanity, the better the workplace will be,” he said—a CEO who joins a videoconference from his penthouse triplex or his home in the Hamptons is also underscoring the fact that his salary is much higher than everyone else’s.

“Overall, those moments when you see someone’s home, that’s a good thing—unless the senior executive is sitting on a yacht,” Deal said. “That would be bad.”

Or even just uncomfortable. Entrepreneur Lynne Lambert, whose company Map’t Gear creates corporate promotional items using custom map artwork, recalled having a video meeting with a new business contact who, based on the palatial Manhattan living room behind her, was clearly privileged, a fact that Lambert would not have known had it not been for that online conference call.

“I do think it changed my impression of her,” Lambert said. “She got elevated [in my mind]. [I’m] not proud of that, but yes.”

The humanizing effect

Deal is quick to stress that, save for the mansion or yacht examples, he believes that all of these fleeting glimpses into people’s personal lives—even the embarrassing stuff—might actually be beneficial for business. For one thing, it builds a sense of connectedness at a time when Americans are feeling more disconnected than ever, especially in a political sense.

“I believe that [in the] long term, people are finding more personal ways to communicate and connect remotely. That can only be good,” he said. “People had already been doing that in the office. People have already been learning how to bring their personal selves into the workplace. It’s more a way of [how] people are becoming, longer term, more interested in connecting with each other.”

Tal Chitayat agreed. As the founder and CEO of Full Circle Home, which sells ecologically sound homecare products and accessories, Chitayat is accustomed to heading to a New York office where 20 people work alongside him. For him, the video conferencing—including the people with bad hair, unshaven chins and personal quirks on full view—is a fond reminder of what he feels he’s lost by working at home.

“You miss the normalcy of seeing each other,” he said. To Chitayat, the video meetings are all about “getting a little more personal. You see their backgrounds. I’ve seen all their kids, and I think it’s great. … It gives perspective in what everyone is facing right now.”

Chitayat recalled one recent meeting where he got a memorable peek at the living room of one of his employees, a health nut who, unable to go to his gym, had bought a rowing machine and crammed it into his tiny Manhattan apartment that he already shared with his wife and two children, presumably to their consternation. The haplessness of that scene, Chitayat said, “is a reassurance of how we’re all the same.”

“These little glimpses we get tell us so many levels to the story that we never knew,” said Andy Slavitt, who last week inaugurated a new podcast called In the Bubble With Andy Slavitt co-hosted with his teenage son Zach. Slavitt was former President Obama’s acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. He’s also a Wharton MBA, former investment banker and healthcare CEO, so he brings multiple perspectives to the table in his new role as “stay-at-home architect.”

Slavitt believed that this warts-and-all look we’re all getting into the lives of colleagues, clients and customers is useful to entrepreneurs and executives because it challenges the self-centered, neo-Copernican view that so many businesses have of being at the center of their own universe.

Witnessing people’s foibles, their messy houses and unruly children, “helps us understand and create empathy for people. Because, for most of us, we see people as how they’re a function of us: You’re my boss or my customer. Whereas, all of a sudden, you say, ‘Oh wait! They don’t just exist in my world.’”

Cawood takes this idea a step further and ventures that, once the pandemic finally runs its course and people find themselves back at the office, the kind of extreme informality that’s carrying the day now may well lead to a welcome relaxation of rules and rigors. In particular, he hopes it will soften some of the tensions between management and the employees.

Being able to have that window into people’s personal space creates a different connection and allows leaders to understand that employees are also people. It could bring the leaders closer to their staff,” he said. “If anything, I believe this will ultimately set the path for the future of work and increase our human capability to build digital relationships that matter as much as those developed face to face.”

Is workplace closeness always a good thing?

It’s hard to argue with the feel-good vibes that come with everyone getting to know one another better, but are the benefits measurable? Yes, they are—though the conclusions are mixed.

Tom Rath and Jim Harter, co-authors of The New York Times bestseller Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, have found that people who have friends in the workplace are seven times more likely to be engaged in their tasks. They also do high-quality work, interact better with customers and are even less likely to suffer workplace injuries.

By contrast, for those of us with no close friends at work, the odds of being engaged in what we do are a scant one in 12. That’s a pretty strong argument for dropping barriers and getting to know your colleagues better.

At the same time, other studies have shown that strong interpersonal relationships at work can also lead to complications, especially when employees have to function closely as a group. In 2007, Auckland University of Technology organizational psychologist Rachel Morrison surveyed 445 workers in a range of industries and came up with over 200 instances of employees complaining about how workplace friendships impeded productivity and distracted them from the task at hand.

Perhaps the takeaway then might be that informality and the bonds it creates is usually a good thing—but don’t forget that you’re still at the office.

Meanwhile, as workers continue to broadcast lives lived on the sofa, there will no doubt be more gaffes and indiscretions, though possibly fewer of them, Deal suggested, because virtual backgrounds appear to be taking the place of laptop cameras trained on the living room.

As for Weishaupt, he’s no longer embarrassed over his kid interrupting his staff meeting with his dodgeball game.

“You know what? A month ago, it would have made me flush. But in the environment we’re now in where we’re all at home? I had to address it and move on. It didn’t interrupt the meeting or change things for the folks on the call. I think it showed that there’s a human side to me.”

Even so, he added, if it was bound to happen that his son would appear on camera in his underwear, it helped that the kid was only seven. “I’m glad he wasn’t 17,” Weishaupt said.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.