Zoom In, Zoom Out

Video conferencing interface, no participant cameras on.I’m noticing there are two types of people in this world; those who when on Zoom calls (or Teams, etc.) turn their camera on, and those who prefer to leave the camera off.

With one of my clients – a large professional services firm –despite pleading and cajoling and shaming, I generally get only 30% of webinar participants to come on camera. With another client, it’s 100%.

What’s the difference between the two groups? More importantly, is one group more right than the other? Should you go on camera on Zoom calls? If so, when, and why? And what does this little issue have to do with creating trust in the 2020s?

First, the two groups. The first one (70% lurkers) is mainly made up of 30-something and 40-something midlevel professionals. The second is made up of college students.

It’s hard not to suspect a generational difference here. Gen Z’s are generally more comfortable with casual online exposure than are the Gen X’s and millennials of my professional services client. Or so goes the theory.

A related issue is the use of digital backgrounds on these calls, vs. the natural background of where your camera happens to be. One group finds the digital backgrounds more professional, while the other group considers the absence of artifice and the presence of coffee cups and keyboard-treading cats to be signs of authenticity.

So What–Why Do Zoom Behaviors Matter?

I think there’s a bigger issue here than online calls. There’s also the work-from-home-vs.-office debate. There’s also the attraction of AI to customer service and other functions. There’s also the approach of marketers and sales folk using impersonal techniques to mimic the sense of personal contact.

The larger picture is – how can emerging technologies help or hinder the creation of interpersonal trust relationships?

I have a bias on this issue: it is that these technologies are here to stay, and each of us has a choice to make about their use. Do we seek out technology to help build relationships, or do we hide behind it hoping that technology can substitute for personal relationships?

This admittedly artificial and binary distinction rests on one theme: risk-aversion. Most people would agree that in-person one-on-one contact is richer and better for creating personal relationships, while at the same time more risky, time consuming and messy.

A lot of work-from-home fans are motivated at least in part by a desire to avoid the messiness of interpersonal interactions.  I suspect it’s the same motive behind a desire to stay off-camera on Zoom calls. And, farther out on the limb of inferences, I suspect the same people are attracted by emerging digital approaches to lead generation and customer acquisition and customer service – “if we can just automate things, find the right algorithms, it’ll all go easier for everyone.”

The other side – full transparency, it’s my side – says we have not evolved in the last few decades out of our innate, human, emotional messiness. Technology will never substitute for human relationships; but technology can contribute to, or hinder, their furtherance.

The right choice is to let technology help. On your Zoom calls – get on camera for them, all the time. Eschew that Golden Gate Bridge green screen background. Lean into the camera, then lean out. Use voice modulation; use your words to convey things that body language might usually say. Let the dog lie in sight of the camera. Comment on other people’s backgrounds (“nice wall hanging; interesting vases on that table; what’s your dog’s name?”).

Don’t use LinkedIn to scrape names and then ruin it with messaging like “I’d like to connect.” (I’d like to win the lottery; so what? Tell me who you are an why we should meet, why you reached out, and how might we help each other?).

Hire more and better customer service staff. Stop lying to me (“our menu has recently changed”). Put “talk to an operator” at the top of your menu, not at the bottom. Treat customer service as a revenue center, or at least not just as a cost center. Use LinkedIn to find out about people, not just to categorize and target them with canned “marketing” messages.

We can use technology as an enabler, or as an excuse. I suggest the former.

1 reply
  1. Loraine Huchler, P.E., CMC
    Loraine Huchler, P.E., CMC says:

    Thanks for your insights! When I use a video conference technology one-on-one, especially if it’s the first meeting or we are having a conversation or discussion – I turn my camera on at the start. The other party usually also turns on their camera – reciprocity at work!
    When I use these technologies to conduct presentations – then I use my still photo. When I use these technologies to collaboratively develop technical documents, we agree not to use cameras to allow us to focus on the work, not the cat walking across someone’s desk :(.
    And since i work from home – even with fiber optic internet service – I always add a disclaimer: if my internet bandwidth becomes unstable, I will turn off my camera to minimize the disruption of losing my connection.


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