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How to Get Peers to Turn On Cameras in Virtual Meetings

Dear Justin,

Since exclusively working at home during the pandemic, I have noticed that my team is not communicating as well as we used to. A few team members will not put their cameras on during meetings and often do not contribute to the meeting. What can I say to them without calling them out and making them feel attacked? I am not the leader of the group.

Signed,
In Favor of Face Time

Dear In Favor of Face Time,

This is a big deal. Our recent research suggests that one of the main things to have taken a hit in the last year is interpersonal connection. Many people are communicating less with their teams, or the quality of communication has suffered. So, let me give you some general advice and some specific advice.

My first suggestions are about fostering better communication and connection in general. It may not seem like I’m answering your question, but if your co-workers don’t feel connected, valued, or a part of something, then it’s no wonder they don’t want to turn on their cameras.

Make Time for Chit-Chat

For most people, it’s during the first few minutes and last few minutes of meetings that they discuss what they did over the weekend, what happened in the game, or what funny things their kids did. This kind of interaction is incredibly important. If employees don’t slow down sometimes and just connect with each other, they get burned out. The work itself may be rewarding but if you don’t also get some benefit from the social side of work, you might find yourself liking your job less and less. When you get to know your colleagues, their interests, their families, their sense of humor, you build connections that foster trust, innovation, and dialogue, which improve how work gets done. You don’t have to be besties with your coworkers, but remember you’re not working with robots and you’re not one either.

Keep Meetings Brief

Sometimes people disengage because the meeting is long and lacks purpose. I’m just gonna say it: some meetings stink. For many of us it’s a part of our jobs to go to meetings, but they don’t have to be long and aimless. So, if you’re in charge of the meetings, consider these questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this meeting?
  2. How quickly can we accomplish it?

Give Participants an Active Role

If your intent is to engage people—to get them to talk, to answer a poll, to chat, to read—then the best thing you can do is ask them to do these things. People are often disengaged because their role has not been defined. Without a clear, defined role, they are more likely to sit back and answer emails during this meeting. Also, invite participants to do something every few minutes. If needed, call out specific people in a complimentary way, “Hey Sarah, you have some of the best experience working in the APAC market. What are some of the challenges you think we should watch out for?”

Make it Safe

Sometimes people don’t contribute to meetings because they don’t feel safe to do so. They may not feel invited, or they may be unsure of how or when to share their views. So, help them see their role clearly and sincerely tell them why you value their attendance. If you can’t do that, maybe they shouldn’t be in the meeting.

Now, some more specific advice to your question.

Make it an Expectation

Ask your manager to ask the team to turn on webcams during meetings. Then, add a reminder to meeting invites. There are a number of implicit norms when it comes to face-to-face meetings. Work to make cameras that way for virtual meetings by inviting and reminding.

Call People Out

If the expectation has been set and people still aren’t turning on their cameras, share your concern using these three steps.

  1. Share the Facts: “Hey team, I’m noticing that most of you don’t have your webcams on, and we discussed as a team how we’d like to see more webcams on to foster better discussion and involvement in the meetings.”
  2. Tell Your Story: “Whether right or not, this causes me to feel that you’re not engaging in our meetings. I’m concerned that if we don’t use our webcams we’ll be disconnected and that will lead to poor results, and we don’t want that. We value everyone’s view and really want you to contribute.”
  3. Ask for their Help: “Would you please turn on your webcams for our meeting? And if you have any concerns, please send me a private message, I’d be happy to talk.”

Best of luck,
Justin

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28 thoughts on “How to Get Peers to Turn On Cameras in Virtual Meetings”

  1. Vee

    Dear In favor of FaceTime,
    Although this article has great advice, I wish it would have touched upon the topic of mother’s working from home. I hope you take into consideration that perhaps you are in an ideal workspace to have your camera turned on during meetings but many, MANY, mothers are still working from home right now and very well choose not to turn on their cameras because they might have children behind them partaking in online distanced learning, or toddlers running around or in asleep in their arms and that doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to what is happening in the meeting, it just means they HAVE TO multitask and don’t need their coworkers to see and pass judgement. In addition, mothers are already struggling to work from home and trust me when I say that every minute counts so instead of having to spend time putting makeup on and looking presentable for a meeting, they’d much rather be helping their kids logging into their online class, planning to make a quick snack/lunch for them, or even getting to throw in a load of laundry. This is time to be more compassionate towards others and I encourage looking beyond your own needs to understand the needs/priorities of others when it comes to turning on a camera.

    1. Julinda

      Great points! I would just add that much of this applies to fathers and others as well.

      1. Elizabeth

        It certainly may apply to many fathers, although I’ve heard from multiple sources that the extra work on the home front has definitely not been shared equally between mothers and fathers during the pandemic, looking at our society as a whole. Dr. Jessica Calarco at Indiana University is among those who has been doing research on this topic.

  2. Ensure that there are ways to socialize and communicate outside of meetings too.

    We have corporate Slack, for instance. With channels for teams, groups, regions, topics, and even a “watercooler” channel for “useless” social chat.

    Don’t underestimate the value of “idle” chat. Or even of complaining. Some of the best work I’ve seen and done has started with someone commenting “I really hate that I have to do X.” and I (or someone else) says, “I can fix that!” Also, we just had a chat that started with joking about an internet meme, and then complaining about how we actually have that problem, and then proposing that we fix it. Now we have a corporate standard and automation to support it. The problem is now fixed!

    We’ve started whole projects from someone saying, “I hate this, I want to do that.” And then we figure out how to do that.

  3. gaylekboyer

    Hi Justin,

    Excellent advice assuming the problem is that employees are disengaged. However there are a lot of other reasons people may not be comfortable (or able to) turn on their webcams. One that comes immediately to mind is if they have kids at home vying for attention (if they have young kids) and/or bandwidth (if their kids are attending school remotely). Might be helpful to begin by asking folks why they prefer not to use webcams, and problem-solve from there.

  4. Mardi

    Yes, personal connection is important. Yes, face-to-face contact makes a difference. But once the expectation has been set and modeled by leaders, what about respecting the reasons employees may not want to or be able to turn cameras on when working from home? Or trusting that they are making the decisions that they need to make? I attend a lot of meetings and generally use my camera, but also expect it to be understood that if I’m not using it, there’s a valid reason. I can think of several valid reasons off the top of my head – internet connection issues, protecting personal/family privacy, anxiety, balancing homeschooling and WFH doesn’t leave time to get camera-ready, etc.

    I enjoy seeing faces, especially in this extended isolation, but I’ll take the contributions of someone who is comfortable and engaged behind a black screen over someone who is unhappy, uncomfortable, and on camera.

    1. TJ

      I appreciate this comment. I think that pressuring people to turn on their cameras, especially in a group setting, is a mistake, and can lead to even less engagement and connection because it is forced. And, in addition to the reasons you mentioned, for many people, being on camera adds a dynamic that makes them more self-conscious, less comfortable and distracted by what is happening on other people’s screens.

      I take an approach of asking people to turn on the camera during the ramp up to the meeting–the first 5 minutes where people are getting on like and dealing with the technical issues we inevitably face. We have some small talk, catch up a bit, joke and connect. Then we get into the agenda and folks do what they’re most comfortable with. I don’t pressure people about cameras because I know my colleagues are dealing with children, spouses, pets, and other WFH chaos and they’re doing the best that they can.

  5. C M

    One must also recognize that, for every person craving face-to-face camera time in every meeting of every day, there are as many or more folks who would prefer to never be on camera, and never have to make their work area or themselves camera ready (clean office, dress professionally, style hair, tame grizzly beard, apply make-up). There are also other bodies of work suggesting that the use of webcams can cause performative focus, rather than meeting content focus, especially until participants gain more comfort on camera (like any reality show).

    I use my webcam strategically [during crucial/high-risk/high-reward conversations [performance feedback (positive or constructive), critical coaching], or when it requires a personal touch (compliments, condolences)], and I always communicate the expectation of camera use in advance.

    For those craving on-screen interaction, I suggest working with your manager and your team to define a reasonable set of circumstances, explaining why a circumstance merits camera use, and communicated in advance. Do not ask people to turn on cameras without warning (while wearing a tank top covered in potato chip dust, with bed head, sans make-up). Resistance will be high. Negotiating an appropriate and justifiable middle ground, in advance, is key [“Can we do one of our weekly Team meetings per month, Mid-Year & End-Year Reviews and (insert specific need here)]. Doing so can satisfy the needs of both types of team members.

  6. Michael Wedman

    As leaders, we should be open to the possibility that some team members are not comfortable sharing their home environments with their co-workers. What we may consider as inclusive may be seen by others as invasive. Perhaps one-to-one conversations would be useful here. Some issues are best addressed without layering on more technology.

    1. Julinda

      Michael, that is so true! I love that “inclusive” vs. “invasive” comparison. Some people are very protective of their privacy. (And some people have very messy homes!)

  7. Mary Libens

    I don’t want to turn on my camera during meetings because I believe that what’s in the background in the spare room I’m using as my home office (lots of clutter) is not something I want my co-workers seeing.

    It’s as simple as that.

    With all the other “stuff” we’re dealing with since transitioning to working from home 11 months ago, getting the room decluttered is not on the top of my priority list.

    1. BL

      I despise turning on my camera, and I don’t want to see everyone’s faces either. I can’t ‘turn off’ my brain’s attempts to read everyone’s facial expressions and it’s overwhelming and completely distracting looking everyone directly in the face. I LOVE working at home ALONE. I’m so much less stressed.

      Can you tell I’m an introvert? I’m also high performing, and very successful. Why stress folks like me out over something so trivial? Is ‘your’ need for ‘face time’ more important than my need for focus? We’ve all worked in the past via conference calls, so I don’t see the point of forcing ‘face time’.

      This is the first time I’ve felt VS was completely off the mark, and I’m the one who campaigned to get VS trainers in to my work place awhile ago to help us resolve some serious employee conflicts. I value your work, but have to disagree with this approach.

      1. Anna

        Exactly, BL. Also, most of my meetings involve looking at electronic spreadsheets or records. I don’t like that there is an up close view of my face as I search for a document on the screen to share.
        For an in person meeting, this is looking down at a laptop or a pile of papers. For a virtual meeting, this is looking REALLY close at coworkers. If you have bifocals, this can give them a good look up your nose as you pull together information. I’d much rather focus on the meeting content than worry about what I might be showing my coworkers or the faces I make looking for something on my laptop.

    2. Michael Wedman

      Well said, Mary. You have your reasons and I’m sure others have theirs as well. Thank you for sharing this.

    3. Julinda

      I recently discovered virtual backgrounds! I had a meeting coming up where I was actually doing a presentation and needed to be visible part of the time, so it was a real relief to be able to have a clear background instead of the chaotic reality! It does make one’s head look a little odd, though, especially when moving or turning to the side.

  8. Andrea Perkins

    I second the comment about Internet connectivity issues. I’ve noticed that there are fewer lags in the conversation when I leave my camera off. It’s much easier to engage in a meeting when I can hear 98% of what everyone is saying, instead of 85%.

  9. Darrell H

    I’m a little surprised at the resistance here. These are work meetings. You wouldn’t attend an in-person meeting with a bag over your head because you had bed head or sit under the table during the meeting because you weren’t comfortable making eye contact with others in the room.

    I am sensitive to the reasons people gave, but it seems reasonable to me to expect WFH employees to create an appropriate work space as best they can and show up to the occasional remote meeting with a modicum of dress and grooming. We all understand that our homes are not set up primarily as a work space, but I don’t think that gives license to refuse to try to fully participate in the meeting–and that means being on camera. There are definite benefits to working from home; can’t those be compensation for the effort of creating a way to participate with your camera on?

    I don’t mean to criticize. I just think that with a bit of effort we all can contribute more to our team’s remote meetings.

    1. Elizabeth

      Darrell, are you the primary caretaker for one or more children under the age of 8 who are at home all day right now? If so, and you still feel this way, fine. If not, please recognize that WFH is not analogous to the pre-pandemic work situations we were in.

  10. JD

    Here is my thought. Maybe they don’t want to turn on their camera b/c well let’s just be frank here, they make you look like hell. And working from home most are not putting on makeup or nice clothes so that makes things even worse. I know sometimes that’s why I don’t turn my camera on. Another reason might be b/c it can cause you to lose connection if you’re on VPN or your internet isn’t the best. I have had this problem with Zoom but not with Teams…so sometimes – especially if I’m presenting – I turn off the webcam so I don’t get kicked off. I always say “Assume positive intent” rather than going to the dark side. Ask questions and find out why the webcam is off.

  11. Julie Fernandez

    I appreciate the desire for face-to-face communication, and I’d like to point out that the assumption here is that no camera = no engagement. As others have said, bandwidth and presence of children/pets can both be issues. My own wifi isn’t great, and it’s even worse when split between me, my husband, and our son.

    I agree that asking questions, etc. can be a way to help everyone contribute, when that’s necessary. (In a staff meeting, there may not be a need for absolutely everyone to say something, depending on what the topics are.) Also, the need to speak one at a time can discourage people from speaking up – I don’t think anyone enjoys the “I’m sorry, you go first/No, you go” dance.

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned using the chat box as an option; that can be a way to do a quick poll or for attendees to contribute. There may be a need for someone in the meeting to be in charge of reading the comments in the chat box for the benefit of anyone calling in who isn’t able to see the comments.

    1. Very good points!

      WiFi and internet speeds, especially upload, are limited. At times, I have asked my coworkers to limit camera use, due to limited WiFi upload bandwidth in some offices.

      Also, contributing through text chat should be valued. And it’s not subject to the usual interruptions and talk-over problems of the audio and visual presentation.

      It can work well to have the camera off unless or until you have something to say — by audio and video. Then turn the camera on and text and/or “raise your (electronic) hand” to show you wish to “take over” the audio and speaker video feed.

      While passively listening to a discussion or lecture by others, why should everyone have to have their cameras on? Is it to monitor them, to make sure they’re paying attention? But does this meeting and communication have so little inherent value that that’s a problem? And isn’t that the real problem?

      1. TJ

        In my organization, I’ve seen even more engagement on many meetings because introverted colleagues are posting thoughtful feedback and comments into the chat. We use the chat extensively and proactively as a tool for engagement–asking questions and inviting people to answer in the chat, using the thumbs up/thumbs down functions to allow people to vote on issues, etc.

        I don’t think it is accurate to say that bring on camera defines being fully engaged and can have the opposite effect. For one thing, the goal is to engage with the topic at hand, not the technology. As several commenters have pointed out, seeing a screen full of people can lead to less listening and more reacting to a sea of faces, which are distracting. In real life, you would be looking at the person speaking at any given time, not having to process a grid of people having reactions to the content/conversation. Attempting to manage a video “face” is exhausting for many, and can pull them out of content and into their heads. I just experienced this on a Zoom call–seeing myself was distracting, watching a bunch of people typing, looking at their screens, making faces–all of that was distracting and led to me missing some of the content.

        I see it as a failure of imagination and creativity to assume that camera on is the only or best way to have an engaging meeting. There are times when selective camera use is valuable, and employees should be forewarned if that will be expected. But engagement can be achieved on a phone conference line, so the assumption that camera use is necessary doesn’t track. You simply have to establish clear expectations and strategies for engaging people.

        A great resource for techniques to be a more engaging meeting facilitator is Secrets of Facilitation by Michael Wilkerson. Lots of tips and strategies for managing group dynamics in a meeting–his company, Leadership Strategies, also teaches a fantastic course on virtual meeting facilitation that demonstrates effective ways to engage online.

  12. JW

    What clinical studies were done to prove turning on webcams foster better discussion and involvement in the meetings? I believe it’s a good facilitator that gets people involved and it doesn’t matter if the camera is on or off.

    1. Yes! I have to agree: How will it objectively improve a meeting to have real-time videos of everyone, when one or only a few people are dominating the meeting and lecturing everyone else? How valued is my video, when I’m interrupted, talked over, and prevented from contributing?

    2. Julinda

      Great point. There is an assumption in the question and answer that having the cameras on improves the meetings. Is that even true?

  13. Julinda

    I came back to this article to comment and found that many others had already said what I wanted to say! While it’s interesting to see colleagues, unless the meeting’s purpose is bonding and social interaction, video does not improve my meeting experience. I have numerous remote meetings each week. Most of them are simple telephone conference calls, but some involve Teams or Zoom. I turn my camera on sometimes, other times not. I recently read a diversity article from a major university (can’t remember the exact source) pointing out that people have varied reasons for not having camera capability engaged, including possible medical issues.

    I would like to add, though, for those who mentioned not wanting their work environment to be seen, in Teams and possibly other video meeting platforms, you can add a virtual background! My home work space is squeezed into a very cluttered room, so I was happy to find I could add a background that allowed me to hide that!

    1. Virtual Backgrounds are GREAT!

      (I’m working from my bedroom, with broken closet doors behind me, and a mess of cabinets, shelves, lamp, door, and forced air register. Space is tight!)

      You need a decent computer to do virtual backgrounds. Tablets and phones may not be able to.

      Update Zoom to the latest version! It can do “Blur” on the background. “Blur” is a great background, that does not distract. You can upload images of your choice, too. I use pictures of the Alamo, to remind people that I’m in San Antonio, Texas. And I have a huge green “YES” sign and red “NO” sign, for backgrounds, to give visual feedback to those who might not be following the text chat, or other cues. ;->

  14. […] from others. That means you need to adopt a policy of always ensuring that meeting attendees always have their cameras on and that they sit close to […]

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