Camera-Shy: What to Do About Employees Who Disengage on Zoom

By Brian O'Connell May 11, 2022
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Camera-Shy: What to Do About Employees Who Disengage on Zoom

​Digital-based company meetings (think Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet) have exploded over the past few years, primarily due to COVID-19 restrictions that forced millions of career professionals to work from home.

Zoom alone registers, on average, 3.3 trillion meetings annually, with 300 million daily meeting participants.

Yet not everyone is on board with showing their faces on video workplace meetings—and some managers don't like it when staffers click the "video off" button.

According to a study of 200 U.S. executives by Vyopta, a collaboration intelligence company, 92 percent say that employees who frequently go on mute or turn their cameras off during video calls "probably don't have a long-term future" with their company.

According to the study, managers who run video calls say that by turning the camera off, employees are displaying a lack of engagement along with a "sign of poor performance to come." Forty-three percent of executives believe that staffers who cut the video during meetings are "scrolling through websites or social media," and another 40 percent believe those employees are "texting or chatting."

Skittish employees may have a different take. Some may be camera-shy, might feel uncomfortable or distracted by showing their faces on video, or could feel that they get more out of a video meeting by just listening in and taking notes.

What's a manager to do about video no-shows? There's no hard and fast answer, management experts say.

"While the workforce is built in favor of extroverts, nearly half of workers are introverts, meaning that it's likely for many to feel camera-shy," said Ashley Stahl, career expert at SoFi, a personal finance company in New York City. "Plus, many of us have been pretty isolated over the past couple of years … communicating mostly over e-mail."

Stahl believes that videoconferencing is inherently unnatural, and each worker likely has different comfort levels about it. But persistent video blockers may be erecting barriers to career advancement.

While camera shyness is understandable, she said, "it's no excuse for blocking your [career] evolution into today's video age."

Getting Staffers to Face Up

Managers who want to see team members' faces on virtual meetings should get creative and persuasive. Take the following steps to get workers to go from "camera off" to "camera on."

Show some carrot and some stick. Managers should encourage their employees to turn on their camera. If the employee resists, take some time to explore their concerns.

"Listen with the intention of understanding their perspective and see if you can meet in the middle," said Courtney Altamirano, senior director of human resources at the University of Phoenix, in Mesa, Ariz. "Many times, there's a reasonable compromise that everyone can live with, such as using different filters and backgrounds or offering camera-free Fridays."

Compromise can come in different forms, too. At ApprovedCourse, a career education company in Fort Worth, Texas, company founder Jorden Fabel will make some allowances for staffers who opt to turn the camera off, along with some mandates.

"Our protocol is that employees don't have to show their face during Zoom calls if they don't want to," Fabel said. "However, there is the caveat that you should have your camera on when you say hello, goodbye and anytime you're talking."

Acknowledge workers who flip the switch. Managers should always help employees understand the value of being "face-to-face" virtually. "When they turn on their cameras, celebrate their choice," Altamirano said. "Send them a note thanking them for hopping onboard with the change. Let them know you understand this was difficult for them, and you truly appreciate them turning their cameras on."

Take a gradual approach. Stahl said she used to hate videoconferencing, but over time, she learned to live with the camera experience. Now she's using that experience as a manager to make staffers more comfortable with video meetups.

"I've learned that the more you do it, the easier it becomes," she said. "One key is to explore clicking 'hide self-view' on Zoom, which keeps your camera on, but hides it from your own display." Stahl said she started doing this recently, and hiding her image makes her a better listener.  

"One of the major reasons that a lot of people feel uncomfortable while videoconferencing is that they can't stop looking at themselves," she said. "In fact, 30 percent of us spend more than half of the time we are on a video call looking at our own faces."

Make the case for "camera on." Managers can win over camera-shy staffers by persuading them it's the right thing to do—for themselves and for the team.

"Let team members know that having your camera on helps the entire team engage with one another and make eye contact so that people can see each other," said Lauren Stempel, vice president of recruiting at Betts, a recruiting firm based in Los Angeles. "Let them know this helps with social cues, and that employers can often tell when someone is engaged, confused or ready to ask questions."

Managers should also lead by example and always have their camera on. "Use your facial expressions and excitement on camera to help motivate people as well," Stempel said. "If a manager is excited to be on camera, it will positively influence their employees' attitudes toward being on camera as well."

If an employee refuses to turn on the camera, Altamirano advises managers to remind team members the impact that "going dark" during meetings can have on their career brand.

"Remember, when we were all in person, if you didn't show up for a meeting, you may miss career opportunities [or] chances for exposure or to network, Altamirano said. "Whether it is fair or not is somewhat irrelevant. If people cannot see your face, your intentions, your engagement, it's less likely you will be top of mind for that next special project or promotion."

Set terms and be candid with reluctant staffers. If you're a manager who firmly believes that employees should be on camera for virtual meetings, be direct and lay down some terms.

"If you're working with people, especially in public-facing fields like recruiting, sales or customer service, it's vital to have your camera on as it boosts engagement and helps participants put a face to the name," Stempel said. "If they're unwilling to meet expectations, then pivot the conversation [by] reminding them why it's an expectation, what they will gain from it and that you need them to comply."

Additionally, be crystal clear about the need to camera-up if the company makes it mandatory. "If you can do your job in person, you can do your job on camera," she said. "If an employee consistently doesn't use his or her camera without providing any reasoning, warnings should be given per company policy."

 

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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