Everything you're reading about video meeting etiquette is wrong
There are difficult and confusing times, so let me be straight with you: There are only two rules for video meetings. First, if you're doing a group workout, courteously mute your screen. Second, don't use Zoom to lay off your staff en masse, you absolute monsters.
Everything else? Fair game.
This, I know, is contrary to all the wisdom you'll find elsewhere on the internet, about proper lighting and clothing and backgrounds. "Our families are more important than anyone, but that doesn't mean our colleagues want to see our partners in their bathrobes, our cats sitting on keyboards, or our children throwing toys," one article in The New York Times announced Wednesday, laying down "The Dos and Don'ts of Online Video Meetings." It's not advice that is unique to the outbreak either; in a 2016 article about "Ten Rules of Etiquette for Videoconferencing," The Wall Street Journal also decreed "keep pets and children out of the picture."
There are many, many new users to video conferencing since social distancing has been adopted as a widespread means of slowing the spread of the new coronavirus (Fortune writes that the video meeting company "Zoom won't disclose usage numbers beyond its last reported quarter, but CEO Eric Yuan said on March 4 that the company has seen a 'large increase in the number of free users, meeting minutes, and new video cases'"). I've personally attended a neighborhood women's circle and family happy hour since becoming a shut-in, in addition to my regular yoga, barre, and HIIT classes, a random dance party, and daily staff meetings with my team at work. Other people are doing even more than that: talking with their therapists and consulting with their doctors, attending classes, going on dates. Life has managed to go on, virtually, and many of us are navigating this new version of existence for the first time, burbled audio, sporadically-frozen images, and all.
As a result, since going into quarantine two weeks ago, I've met babies, cats, dogs, siblings, partners, and a pair of adorable guinea pigs named Fred and May, all over video. None of these meetings had been preplanned; they were all incidental, chance encounters facilitated by our strange new socially-isolated reality. Videoconferencing has allowed for me to beam my crazy and scary life into the living room of someone else's crazy and scary life, and whatever resulting chaos ensues while that encounter is taking place, well, we should embrace it.
The one benefit of working from home is the possibility of this happening to a colleague at any moment pic.twitter.com/LMomJhuunB
— James Felton (@JimMFelton) March 16, 2020
This is — I cannot emphasize this enough — an utter joy. Far-flung colleagues I've only known as green "active" dots on Slack bloom on screen into friendly faces. I've met their babies! Maybe this would have felt encroaching in a different place and time — we're told to keep distance between our work and our personal life — but those walls collapsed when nonessential workers were barred from going out. Now I find myself prizing community and, above all else, craving humanity, even if it's a little pixilated.
For my part, I've dragged writhing cats into the frame of my computer screen to introduce to my yoga studio friends — and, okay, my colleagues too. And sure, it's not the most professional thing I could be spending my workday doing, but in case you haven't noticed, there's a pandemic going on out there. Partners are out of jobs, kids are home from school, child care is literally nonexistent, and my "office" is now infested with attention-seeking cats. These are extraordinary, historic days we're living through, and to demand some kind of "proper videoconferencing etiquette" from anyone, while the world feels like it's falling apart, seems inhumane.
We're all trying to do our best. We really, really are. So let's leave people alone. Let's look for joy where we can find it.
And please, if we're on a Zoom call together, introduce me to your cat.