Have you been on a zoom meeting with Bob in Accounting, and it looks like he’s sitting in a luxurious office with a view of Manhattan? He’s not, of course. He’s using a Virtual Background to hide the fact he’s actually working from the North end of the dining room table.
Someone recently asked a question on our Long Distance Worklife podcast: When is it appropriate to use background filters, and what are the rules?
What problem are virtual backgrounds solving?
Most technology was invented to solve a problem. Also, there has been nothing invented that human beings won’t find a way to misuse or create more problems. Let’s look at the problem they were trying to solve first of all.
Working from home does not mean we automatically have broadcast-capable facilities. Using a webcam to join a Teams meeting may mean showing the world your “home office” is the spare bedroom, or that the only place to store those boxes is directly behind you where the CEO can see them if you turn your camera on.
Before COVID, the people who did work from home got creative. They made sure their desk backed against a plain-colored wall, or they draped a sheet behind them. Some of us even invested in tools like “WebAround,” collapsible screens that fit over the back of your chair and masked whatever was really lurking behind your chair.
Zoom, Teams and WebEx all addressed the problem by allowing the software to change what the audience sees in the background.
We have options
One option is to “blur” the background. This changes the focal length of the camera so that everything close to the camera is clear, but the further back you go, the more out of focus the picture is until you can’t see what’s behind the speaker. But they didn’t stop there.
They then gave you the option of several stock photos, most of which were traditional, safe, boring stock photos of an office. But wait, there’s more. Then they offered moving backgrounds, that looked like you were on a windswept beach, or even the moon. Eventually, because people demand customization, they allowed users to upload any photograph and use that as their background. Thus began the era of people conducting business in front of a giant picture of their cat, or a vacation photo.
What’s the problem?
There are two big problems with this. Problem one is that the way these tools work (the technology is irrelevant, just work with us here) can create visual distortion. There’s a halo of light all around your body. When you lift your hands, they disappear, and what you’re holding up to the camera is invisible to the viewer. It looks weird and can be a huge distraction to the viewer.
The second problem is that it may appear unprofessional to your audience. Your customer doesn’t need to see that you’d rather be on a Hawaiian beach than working with them. Here, then, are some guidelines:
- Think about who your audience is. There may be legitimate reasons to hide your physical surroundings, in which case blurring the background or adding an appropriate visual makes sense. Choose wisely. I have three backgrounds I usually use, and the more formal the presentation, the more I’m likely to go with the blank, beige wall. The cartoon robots (it’s in Microsoft Teams, look it up) are for informal conversations.
- Using your own photos is fun, but use high resolution. I have a picture of the Las Vegas sign I often use. It’s a bright color, and is often a conversation starter. It’s also a high-resolution photo so it doesn’t suffer the same problems of blurring and flaring that some others do.
- Check your background before getting on the meeting. How crisp and clear the background is, and how much of a distraction it will be, depends on a lot of factors. The clothes you wear (certain patterns and colors create psychedelic effects), how far you are from the camera, and what you’ll be doing during the call can impact what your audience sees. It can turn a harmless joke into a major headache. Test your background with the clothes you plan to wear (or just start a meeting a couple of minutes before joining the call and see what it looks like).
Working from home has allowed us to show off more of our selves and our personalities in the workplace than ever before. That requires that we make smart choices about using some of the customizable tools.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.