Camera’s On Or Off? Let’s Settle The Debate on Video Meetings Once and For All.


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As we navigate the post-pandemic world, the question of how to conduct effective video meetings has become a hot topic. One particular point of contention is whether to keep cameras on or off during these meetings. As an expert in hybrid work models, I’ve had the privilege of helping numerous organizations navigate this new terrain. Recently, I had an enlightening conversation with Nick Bloom of Stanford University, who is one of the leaders of the WFH Research group and has conducted extensive research on this very topic.

Related: 5 Ways to Keep Engaged During Boring Virtual Meetings

The case for cameras on

Nick’s research — which surveyed 10,000 working Americans — revealed some surprising facts. Even in small meetings of four people or less, less than half of the participants had their cameras on all the time. This was a surprising revelation, considering the common assumption that smaller meetings would naturally encourage more camera usage.

The research also found that having cameras on during meetings significantly increases engagement. Half of the respondents reported feeling more engaged when their cameras were on, and they perceived others in the meeting as more engaged as well. This symmetry in perception is a strong argument for the “cameras on” camp.

This finding is particularly significant in the context of the hybrid work model. With employees working remotely, video meetings are often the only opportunity for face-to-face interaction. The visual cues that come with having cameras on — the nods of agreement, the puzzled frowns, the smiles of understanding — can go a long way in fostering a sense of connection and collaboration.

The downside of constant visibility

However, it’s not all rosy in the world of video meetings. I brought up a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2021 that showed that having cameras on during meetings can lead to increased fatigue. This is a significant concern, as employee well-being is a crucial factor in productivity and overall job satisfaction.

Nick Bloom agreed with this finding, noting that being more engaged in a meeting, which is more likely when your camera is on, can indeed be more tiring. It’s akin to the difference between sitting through a math exam versus randomly ticking off answers. The former requires more mental energy and concentration, leading to fatigue.

This raises an important question: Is the increased engagement worth the potential fatigue? The answer, as is often the case, is not black and white. It depends on a variety of factors, including the nature of the meeting, the participants involved, and the overall work culture of the organization.

Striking the right balance

So, how do we reconcile the need for engagement with the potential for fatigue? The key lies in finding the right balance and setting appropriate norms. For smaller meetings, it’s advisable to encourage camera usage. However, it’s also crucial to avoid back-to-back meetings, which can exacerbate fatigue.

Institutions like Harvard and MIT have adopted a practice of leaving a 10-minute gap between classes to allow students to rest and recharge. This practice can be effectively applied to the corporate world as well, with meetings ending five minutes before the hour or half-hour to give employees a chance to take a break.

This approach not only helps to mitigate fatigue but also allows employees time to process the information from the meeting and prepare for the next one. It’s a simple yet effective way to enhance the productivity and effectiveness of video meetings.

The importance of meeting standards

The decision to turn cameras on or off could also be guided by the nature and importance of the meeting. For instance, in a weekly standard meeting where everyone is merely sharing reports, only the presenter might need to have their camera on. However, for more collaborative meetings where observing body language and reactions is crucial, having cameras on would be beneficial.

If a meeting is deemed non-critical, and participants can afford to pay half attention, perhaps that meeting should be reconsidered or converted into a written format. This approach would save time and reduce unnecessary fatigue. It would also respect the time and energy of the participants, allowing them to focus on tasks that require their full attention.

In contrast, for meetings that require active collaboration and discussion, having cameras on can significantly enhance the quality of the interaction. Being able to see each other’s expressions and reactions can foster a sense of connection and mutual understanding that is hard to achieve through voice alone.

Related: Why Meeting Culture is Draining your Employee’s Strength and Productivity

The final verdict

While having cameras on during video meetings can enhance engagement, it’s essential to be mindful of the potential for fatigue. By setting clear norms, allowing for breaks between meetings, and considering the nature and importance of each meeting, we can optimize the use of video meetings in the hybrid work model.

The world of work is continually evolving, and as we adapt to these changes, it’s crucial to keep the well-being and productivity of employees at the forefront. The debate of camera on or off is just one aspect of this larger conversation. As we continue to explore and understand this new terrain, let’s remember to keep our focus on creating an environment that fosters engagement, productivity and overall job satisfaction.

Remember, the goal isn’t just to survive in this new world of work, but to thrive in it. So, the next time you find yourself in a video meeting, consider the impact of that little camera icon. It’s not just about visibility, but about engagement, productivity, and well-being.

As we continue to navigate the hybrid work model, let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s keep questioning, exploring and finding the best ways to work in this brave new world. After all, the future of work is here, and it’s up to us to shape it.

The debate over camera usage in video meetings is a microcosm of the broader challenges we face in the hybrid work model. It’s a reminder that we need to continually reassess and adapt our practices to ensure that they serve the well-being and productivity of our employees.

So, whether you choose to turn your camera on or off in your next video meeting, remember that the ultimate goal is to create a work environment that is engaging, productive, and respectful of the well-being of all participants. And that is a goal worth striving for.


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