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Is this thing even on?

The rush to remote work has thrown us all into a new etiquette minefield. 

Before The Pandemic, video conferencing was a fairly simple and well-understood procedure: everyone dressed in corporate casual and dialled in from a work environment, or a close approximation thereof. But the sudden move from corporate to home has raised a whole lot of new business etiquette dilemmas.

The rules of engagement aren’t terribly clear anymore, particularly for those who’ve just made the leap from office to home and are still grappling with the lack of a boardroom and water cooler.

Now, you have to shoo people and pets away from your video call background, with dire warnings about what will happen to anyone who flushes the loo during your call. You might spend the entire meeting sadly noticing the untidy state of your home, compared to the pristine background of the person you’re speaking to. Everyone will assure each other that it’s fine – just fine – if family unwittingly bursts into a call. But it’s not really fine, is it? We’ve all seen the videos of the hard-working professionals whose kids or half-dressed partners strayed into important video calls. And the one where a woman who was new to video calls took her team video conference live into the toilet. Does anyone really take them seriously after that?

 

There does seem to be a relaxing of the rules around corporate dress code in this new normal, though. Apparently, sweatshirts and wooly jerseys are okay to be seen in when you’re virtual, and because webcams are unkind anyway, it’s not as important to worry about makeup as it was in the old days – a month ago. Having a personal life, something that wasn’t generally prominent in business engagements, is now front and centre when you’re popping up virtually in someone’s living room, inspecting their décor, and vice versa.

There’s also the new issue of what to do if you expected a voice call and didn’t dress for the meeting (aka still in pyjamas), but the other party merrily insists on enabling his video because he likes the personal touch of face to face engagement? The longer you leave him talking to a blank screen, the ruder it looks. Should you quickly brush your hair and throw on a work shirt before magically popping to life on his screen, or is it better to grimly persevere in anonymity?

I’ve sat in calls where people unwittingly gave everyone a clear view up their nostrils before frantically turning their camera off, and where everyone got an unmistakable shot of someone’s hand covering the webcam while they scurried around looking for a better backdrop to be seen in.

Interesting insights

Many people haven’t yet got the hang of their mute buttons, so everyone in the call gets interesting insights into other people’s lives happening in the background as we speak.UPFRONTShould someone tell them, or should we all pretend we can’t hear a thing?

There are those awkward meetings without a designated host, in which everyone starts speaking at once, then everyone apologises and stops simultaneously to give everyone else a chance. So you all sit blinking in silence for a bit. There are the screen-sharing options in which everyone in the meeting gets a good insight into what folders someone has on their laptop as they gamely search all their files for the slide they wanted to show you.

With work from home likely to be the de facto way of doing things for some time to come, we will find ourselves getting many new and interesting insights into the people we deal with for business. Possibly too much. Ironically, even though we will see colleagues, partners and clients less in real life, we might start connecting with them better than we did before. Perhaps we will warm to business associates a little faster once we discover they too are human, with a cranky toddler or a lively dog, or exactly the same sofa we have. Maybe, being isolated and cut off from each other will bring people closer together, and be good for business in the end.

 If we can all agree on the rules of engagement for online conference calls, that is.


TRACY BURROWS is a freelance IT and corporate writer and a long time contributor to all of ITWeb's platforms

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