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Teams – Camera on or off?

Why do some teams NOT want to see each other?

During the pandemic, video Conferencing became completely and utterly normal. Many companies have now embraced so-called hybrid work, allowing people to work from home or the office with flexibility. And even at those organizations where employees have been forced to go back to the office, video conferencing is here to stay. And that is a good thing, because – although it is the poor cousin of face-to-face meetings – it allows us to connect with and include people anywhere in the world.

I’ve struggled to identify a pattern from my observations of camera off or camera on culture. Why do people at some companies all turn their camera on seemingly willingly? And yet at others nobody is willing to go camera on. What’s going on and why does it matter? Here’s my take.

Why do some organizations have a camera on or camera off culture?

There are many reasons that companies end up with a camera on or camera off culture too. General meeting practices come into play here. Many companies have terrible meeting cultures that include an endless parade of back-to-back, unnecessary, and unimportant meetings. And as a result, people have developed deep, and problematic multitasking practices that lead them to prefer being “camera off”. But bad meeting practices are still a team culture issue.

Teams meeting cameras on or off through a scientific lens

Have you ever heard of the Mehrabian Study? It’s usually applied like this:

  • 7% of your communication is Verbal
  • 38% is in the Tone that you say it with
  • 55% comes from your Expressions and Body Language

Well, it’s wrong. The way it’s usually presented is a wild misapplication of the research and intent of Mehrabian’s study. But the reason it’s a popular myth is that it taps into something that we know to be true intuitively. Tone, body language and expression are especially important tools in communication.

If I’m meeting with you on Teams, I can usually see on your face that you’ve tuned out, or you’re checking emails. If you’re talking to somebody and they start to multitask, you can hear it in their voice and the words that they say too. And based on that I can either adjust my presentation or ask you to get involved and pay attention.

If you want to have a quality, focused conversation with your team or your colleagues, why would you choose to do it with only half a toolkit? But my observation is that a lot of organizations choose to do just that; to operate with half a tool kit.

There’s still a time to turn your camera off during a Teams meeting

Now I’m not saying that you should always have your camera on. There are plenty of great reasons to go camera off in some meetings. In fact, a Stanford social media lab study found that seeing yourself on camera was of the four key causes of what they labelled, “Zoom fatigue”. They said it was like having a mirror placed in front of you all day long. It’s exhausting for several reasons. It is a bit weird to see yourself constantly when you think about it. Fortunately, both Teams and Zoom now allow you to turn your “self-view” off. This mitigates this issue and allows you to present yourself without being so self-conscious.

But I’m talking about the consistent practice of having cameras off in certain organizations. I suspect that the practice is related to the culture of the organization. For example, if an organization has a dedicated team culture, everyone is focused on the same just cause. And they are all working together to achieve it. As a result, they are more likely to take advantage of tools that could benefit team interactions.

Office culture affects the willingness of staff to be on camera

In his book “The Infinite Game,” Simon Sinek talks about the prioritization of will versus resources. An organization has a finite limit of resources. For example, budget and time. We only have so much money in the budget. And we only have your time from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Those resources are finite.

An organization that is focused only on extracting every drop from those resources, 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, will quickly diminish the will of its employees.

Organizations prioritizing resources over will

Imagine working under a manager who demands to see you on camera from 9 to 5. He wants to make sure that you don’t spend even a single minute unproductively. How engaged, and excited to go to work do you think you’d be? I would be looking for every single opportunity to turn my camera off in that sort of environment. In fact, I wouldn’t stay employed for too long at all.

What about a company that focuses on monthly and quarterly numbers over all else? “If you don’t hit your targets, you can expect the screws to clamp down on you.” Organizations that are driven by arbitrary metrics and rules instead of mission are unlikely to be people friendly environments. How likely would you be to turn up with your best self if you can’t get on board with the mission?

On the other hand, with will, the desire to work together to achieve your cause is infinite. And organizations that prioritize will over resources, tap into far more resources.

Organizations that prioritize will over resources

If your organization cares more about customers and staff, it prioritizes those over numbers. Consequently, you’re more likely to have a culture where people will do whatever they can to support each other. Even if it means the inconvenience of presenting themselves on camera.

So, on the one hand there is the organization that prioritizes resources. It says, “we need to extract work out of you.” But on the other hand, there is the organization that prioritizes will. It says, “we’re here to support you to do your best work, and to achieve our common mission.” Which organization do you think staff would be more willing to turn their camera on?

In such an organization, turning your camera off is perfectly OK. You’re not likely to attract any negative attention for doing so. Why? Because people understand that there are times when you need to be off camera. In such an organization, you’d be far more likely to be on camera because you want to be. You want to work with your team to the best of your ability. Empathy and trust are at play here.

So, using your camera in a team meeting allows you to bring your full presence and connection to the table.

Changing camera culture in Microsoft

I’ve personally noticed a major change over the last two years at Microsoft around camera practice. The Microsoft folks that I meet with are much more likely to have their cameras on these days. And that’s markedly different to what it was two years ago. The difference is so stark! I’d be willing to wager that it has been well addressed throughout the organization. Again, there are plenty of times when I meet with folks at Microsoft who can’t have their camera on. And that’s fine. But most of the time they turn their cameras on. And that helps us all to improve our presence, engagement and focus during meetings.

Microsoft is prioritizing will over resources

Microsoft is also a very mission driven company. Their mission is: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”. That won’t always translate for every single team and every employee of such a large organization. But I think it’s an example of a mission-driven company, fostering the will of its employees. I’ll leave a link to an article on the Microsoft Worklab website here. It explains how they are working with their managers to foster a better culture around hybrid work

Nobody wants to have more meetings or longer meetings. As a result, we need to keep our meetings tight, focused, and efficient. Love them or hate them, cameras do allow us to do more of that. Is your organization camera on or camera off? And why do you think it is that way? Tell us what you’ve observed in the comments below. If you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to the OzTabletPC and Quick Tech Tips YouTube channels for video content like this post.


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