What is your video background saying about you?

1976_The_Fall_and_Rise_of_Reggie_Perrin_hi055592808Your video background is your brand

What does your working space, and what you choose to reveal about it say about you?

We are in the business of brand building, we know how crucial it is to consider what is on show as well as what is said or done.  You will be judged on your appearance whether or not this is even fair.  And now, you will be judged on your background (this might not be conscious but is an instinctive System 1 thinking judgement,) whether or not this is fair too.

Most people I speak to on video call reveal their actual background.  In my own case this is a disorganized but very wide-ranging collection of books that actually don’t belong to me but to other family members, and a mantelpiece cluttered with mementoes.  My colleague Claudine has been in front of a steely wall all week this week, and my CEO Kate’s collection of cookery books, which she frequently appears in front of in our weekly Town Hall meetings, has sparked curiosity about her favourite chefs.

The decision to use a fake background speaks volumes too of course.  I was on one call where the background of an office façade was so realistic that I assumed that the participant was a key worker – but he just hadn’t wanted to reveal his room.  If you do want a fake background then there’s a rich assortment here from the BBC.  Then there are people whose living space just make you envious.  I have been told of one CEO whose palatial home is so aspirational (there are statues, obviously expensive real art and pillars) that his team recommended that he relocate to a smaller room in the house to stay empathetic with his more junior staffers.    There is a new dimension to bringing your whole self to work, as we now get to nose around each other’s homes on a daily basis.

Anecdotally there seems to be some gender difference as well as the obvious difference between those people in a one bed flat or sharing space with others and people fortunate enough to be able to settle in a regular make-shift office area or a fit for purpose study.

More women than men (however senior they are) seem to be working from bedrooms.  More mums than dads seem to be interrupted by young children.  Many mums have disclosed their worry and guilt about letting home schooling standards slip.  This additional mental load is documented in the Economist’s briefing on the 90% economy that they are calling the “new ‘nearly normal’” where they write: “Women are more likely to take care of home-schooling and entertainment of bored children, meaning their careers suffer more than men’s.  Research finds that the productivity of female economists has fallen relative to male ones, as measured by the production of research papers, since the pandemic began… the growing gender divide in productivity points to the final big problem with the 90% economy: that it is unfair.”

Although it is difficult to complain that the current way of working is harder than before (given that the comparisons with ICU workers leave us with nothing to complain about) it is true that day long video calls are tiring.  It may be true that it is easier on introverts than extroverts as introverts don’t need so much stimulus from others.  However Direct Line Group MD of marketing and digital Mark Evans pointed out to me recently: “There’s extra ‘cognitive load’. Your brain is having to work much harder to interpret the reactions of other people in the many mini screens in the meeting since you don’t have the usual cues from face-to-face mannerisms and micro-gestures. Simultaneously your brain is constantly interpreting your own image staring back at you. It’s no surprise that it’s exhausting”

There are some upsides to video conferencing.  There’s no geographical barrier, I have relished calls with colleagues in China and San Francisco being the norm.    For those whose emotions are an open book, you can hide your immediate reactions by turning off your camera which sometimes, as we point out in The Glass Wall book, can be helpful when you need a balanced perspective to the emotional CoronaCoaster of the working week.

This tactical fall back might be necessary, but what is needed above all is openness, looking each other in the eye, reaching out to each other, and authentic leadership through these most difficult times.



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