Does turning your camera on during video meetings fill you with dread? Or do you look forward to seeing your colleagues’ faces on calls? Today, we debate whether teams should default to having cameras on or off in virtual meetings. Get ready to dig into the surprising impacts that cameras can have on creativity, engagement, and even career advancement.
Debater Maren Hotvedt argues in favor of keeping cameras on, supported by Juraj Holub, co-founder of Remote People and former chief meeting designer at Slido. Marshall Walker Lee comes out swinging against the practice, with help from industrial-organizational psychology professor, Dr. Kristen Shockley.
Research from Dr. Kristen Shockely
Best virtual meeting practices from Harvard Business Review, featuring Juraj Holub
Research published in Nature
Research published in Psychology Today summarizing impact of non-verbal communication cues
Christine: So good to see y'all. And by ‘see y'all,’ I mean I can't see you because I'm having internet issues. But it's so good to be in the same virtual room again.
Maren: Oh, Christine, you've taken my joke. I was gonna intro with, “It's so good to see you and Marshall.” Literally.
Marshall: Yeah. It's great to be with both of you. Christine, you know, you might be able to listen a little more closely without that video distracting you today.
Christine: I don't know if that's a point, or a dig on my listening skills, but points taken on both sides.
Christine: Welcome to Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian, where we debate whether workplace practices are still working for us.
I'm your host and judge Christine Dela Rosa, and I like my webcam like I like my treadmill's progress bar: sometimes with a piece of paper on top.
Which brings me to today's debate: should teams default to having their cameras on during video calls?
Ok, so by default, we're talking about team norms, not a policy or a company mandate. And let's go ahead and exclude any meeting over 50 people. We're talking about meetings where there's an assumption that you'll be participating, like actively.
Marshall: All right.
Maren: Sounds good.
Christine: Cool. Now before we dive in, let’s meet our Atlassian debaters. Today we have returning champions Maren Hotvedt and Marshall Walker Lee. Maren Hotvedt, hello. Welcome back. You are arguing for cameras on. Gotta ask, why'd you wanna argue that side? Does it speak to you? What’s your connection here?
Maren: It absolutely speaks to me. Having video on is my own norm, but it’s also the norm I see around me every day at work. And I think it builds really strong connections between teams, especially when teams are working remotely, to be able to actually literally see your coworkers. I wanted to test this out though, so I did run a little experiment and I tried to go a week with not having my camera on during Zoom meetings and…
Christine: That’s a long time…
Maren: It is a long like, well, I failed. I made it one day.
Marshall: Oh no.
Christine: Okay, that's not bad.
Maren: In that day, you know, I just ran into so many challenges. But in the end, I found that, you know, given that a lot of – if not al – face to face time for some of us is now happening through a screen, keeping video on just really helped provide the nonverbal communication cues and connection that I needed to, you know, finish my work day.
Christine: Honestly, it sounds like you're gonna be speaking from lived experience, and I love a debater who speaks from the heart. So thanks for being here and thanks for, you know, being so honest with how you feel.
Maren: Of course.
Christine: Marshall, welcome back as well. You are arguing for cameras to not be on as your default. Uh, does that speak to you in the way that you work?
Marshall: Yeah. Well, as you know Christine, I'm always happy to play devil's advocate, but luckily today I don't have to – I think out of all of the conversations we've had on this podcast, this is maybe the one that I feel the most passionate about.
Christine: Oh, nice.
Marshall: And that's because I am an auditory and kinesthetic learner. In other words I learn by listening and I learn by moving my body around. And basically video conferencing is my worst nightmare.
My visual field is flooded with low quality information that makes it impossible for me to listen. And I'm stuck in this tiny, rectangular box. I can't fidget, I can't walk around, I can't bounce. It's “sit still and stare ahead.” It's like middle school all over again, and I am ready to passionately argue against it.
Christine: Nice, like the fire, Marshall. Sounds like we’ve got some strong feelings on both sides and I cannot wait to dig in. Having said that, I did not do any research for this, I’m trying a new thing called being more present, and not being swayed by my own experience. So I’m here to listen to the guests and the evidence that you have brought to the table, and from there, I’ll decide who wins today’s debate. Maren, you are up first.
Maren: All right. Well this is a, this is a tall order. Marshall. Have you ever lost a debate?
Marshall: You know, I don't think of it as winning and losing, Maren.
Maren: I just wanna know what I'm, what I'm up against here.
Marshall: I, I think everyone wins here.
Maren: Okay, okay. So let's kick off into it. We’ve all heard that most communication is nonverbal, right? Studies have shown that up to 93% of the information we receive in a conversation is nonverbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, posture, eye contact, even your appearance.
And when I heard appearance, I thought of a funny anecdote from my own life. So I have a coworker who has this chart that helps you read her mood based on how she looks that day. So it's things like, is her hair up or down? Has she straightened it or not? Um, is she wearing a top versus a sweatshirt?
Christine: Wait, Maren. You're telling me you’ve got a teammate who kind of shares their vital signs with you, of, “this is what I look like, this is my mood, this is how I'm doing,” and it's like open... That's some real vulnerability right there.
Maren: It’s incredible.
Marshall: Does she ever put her hair up in the middle of a call and everyone suddenly feels a chill?
Maren: I'll ask her about this, after the debate.
So this, this is my point, like knowing this about her and pairing that with a visual cue – like being on a video call with her – allows me to be a better teammate to her because I can instantly tell like, okay, she's not having a very good day, or she is having a good day.
Christine: This level of vulnerability is new to me, but I'm into it. What happens once you have all of that? What do you do differently as a result?
Maren: Yeah, good question. I mean, if I see something like, okay, she has a sweatshirt on and her hair is up and her glasses are on, I might not add to her workload that day. Or I might be more likely to really ask her how she's doing. And so having this chart is just a really helpful tool for me as a teammate.
Christine: Got it.
Maren: But I wanna call in an expert here. So let's hear from my guest. Juraj Holub. Juraj was previously the Chief Meeting Designer at Slido, which is a company that makes tools to support remote and hybrid meetings, and since then, he founded the Remote People Consulting Company. He lives in Slovakia, but works with people all around the world similar to us at Atlassian. So he thinks a lot about how to do remote meetings right.
Juraj Holub: I think having the camera on is really important for smaller meetings that follow the three Ds of meetings: that's discuss, decide, or develop. That means that conversation is really at the core of the meeting.
Maren: Yeah, so I've been talking about how visual cues are useful from a teammate perspective, but they're also really important when you're the one who's leading the meeting. Here's Juraj to talk about that.
Juraj Holub: So personally as a team lead, as a facilitator, I always turn on my camera. One of the key responsibilities of being a facilitator is to read the room, and having the cameras off makes it very, very difficult. It almost feels like talking to the wall, right?
I remember one meeting in particular we were just discussing a new marketing strategy for the upcoming year, right. And once I introduced the goals, I saw a lot of hesitation on people. I saw some people frowning. I saw some people crossing their hands, and I saw a lot of signals that we're saying, “Okay, I'm not really buying into this yet.”
So I started prompting people to comment on that. I say like, “Alright, Peter, I see that you are frowning. What's your take on the strategy?” And, um, he jumped on that and started describing his concerns. Then another person actually chipped in with his or her thoughts on the strategy. And that really helped us to get the buy-in, and I think it was really, really critical and I cannot imagine achieving something like that without having the cameras on.
Maren: Turning off the camera means you're limiting the ability to read or connect with your teammates. So I think you should think twice before switching to audio only.
Christine: Ok so this is interesting, because I can remember years and years ago we didn't even have the option to turn video on. All the conference calls, they were literally audio only. That was it. And it's true that without the visuals, I can remember times where we were talking over each other, you didn't know who was talking next, and maybe a bit of that personal connection could have been lost.
Marshall: Well that's interesting. As I was getting ready for this debate, I talked to another expert, my mama, who spent a big chunk of her career running big global teams – think 10 direct reports in 10 time zones, in 10 different countries. And she was doing all of this before video conferencing technology exists. They had email, they had phone, and they had fax. And you know, just to push back against your point about connection, she managed to forge really deep lasting connections with her coworkers, many of which blossomed into real friendships over time. These are people she still talks with 30 years later.
Maren: Very cool.
Marshall: And I actually think that there are some real advantages to how we process information when it's audio only. So a 2017 study out of Yale showed that participants were actually better at reading the emotions of the person they were talking to when they were in a totally dark room. So they have zero visual cues. One reason for this is that we're actually way worse at keeping our true feelings out of our voices than we are at keeping them out of our faces.
We can read each other better when we eliminate all those inauthentic visual cues, like fake smiles or nods. All that visual information is not necessarily honest or high quality, and it might actually be muddying your ability to read people correctly.
And processing all of that extraneous information is exhausting. I'm sure you're all really sick of hearing the expression I'm about to utter, but I have to say it: Zoom fatigue. Let's talk about Zoom fatigue. Okay. Now, there are a lot of factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue, but a study from 2020 showed that being on video in particular is a really powerful variable in determining just how fatigued people feel from all of these calls and meetings.
This study was conducted by my guest, Dr. Kristen Shockley. She's an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Georgia. And back in 2020, as I mentioned, she collaborated with a colleague from the University of Arizona and a company named Broadpath. And they started collecting all of this data to see just how much being on video was affecting employees' remote work experience.
Dr. Kristen Shockley: We randomly assigned them to either be camera off or camera on first, and so for two weeks we said for every meeting, try to keep your camera on or off. And then at the end of each day, they just got a quick survey at five o'clock. How tired are you? And how engaged were you in your meetings today? And how much voice did you feel like you had? So how much did you feel like you could speak up when you wanted to?
And then they switched conditions for the second two weeks. So if you've been camera on before for the next two weeks, you were camera off, so we could really isolate the effects of the camera. And the answer was, yes. We did find that the camera was more fatiguing. Then in turn, fatigue leads to people being less engaged in meetings, as well as feeling like they could speak up less.
Marshall: So having our cameras on makes us more fatigued. Which in turn makes us worse at speaking up and worse at engaging.
Christine: I see.
Maren: I wanna, I wanna break in here. So all respect to Dr. Shockley. I found this study as well, but I also found a large scale study from Pew Research Center that found only one in four people feel Zoom fatigue to any degree at all. Even a teeny, tiny bit of Zoom fatigue counted. So I'm not sure this issue is either as prevalent or as problematic as we might have thought back in 2020.
Marshall: Hmm. Yeah, that's interesting. Maren. I would say that one in four is still quite a large portion of employees, especially if being on camera all day is wearing them out and making them less productive. And Dr. Shockley’s research actually found that these negative effects are felt more strongly by women in the workplace.
Dr. Kristen Shockley: And there's a couple of reasons why we think this would occur. So, the first reason is in general, women are held to higher standards than men.
So we thought that women would feel extra pressure to need to keep up an appearance that they were super engaged in the meeting and look a certain way when their camera was on, more so than men would.
There's also something known as the grooming gap – different requirements for what makes men and women look put together. And if you're gonna be on camera, you need to look put together.
And then the third thing is, looking at working couples with young kids, kids are much more likely to come interrupt mom than dad. And so that's another thing when your camera's on. And all of a sudden somebody walks in the background that's not supposed to be there, it’s stressful and ultimately taxing and fatiguing.
Maren: Marshall. You're bringing up one of my favorite topics, which is the unfair treatment of women in the workplace.
Maren: Rewinding to a past episode, debating whether you should wear pajamas to a remote meeting, where I gave a very impassioned speech about how women should not be judged based on what they're wearing – I think the same thing is happening here. Which is that, you know, why is it that we're blaming video software for a bias that women have higher standards for physical appearance, or negatively judged for things like having children in the background. You know, again, these are just systemic societal problems that interestingly like keep popping up in these debates. And so while I definitely think, you know, video has a role to play in surfacing those problems, I don't think video is the problem.
Marshall: Yeah, that makes sense.
Christine: Marshall. It's interesting that the study showed that cameras on caused more fatigue. And I don't know that I necessarily thought about this before, but as someone that is like very attuned to wanting to see how people are reacting all the time, when I'm in a meeting in person, I'm just usually looking at the speaker and no one else, not myself. Uh, obviously there's no mirror in an in person meeting, not in my meetings at least.
Marshall: Yeah, I'm glad you brought up self-view. I think this is a great example of the immaturity of this technology, right? Somehow the people at Zoom and these other video conferencing platforms decided that as a default, we all wanna see ourselves all the time.
And I think most of us have realized that we in fact do not wanna be looking at ourselves all the time while we are engaging with our coworkers, just as we wouldn't want someone holding up a mirror to us as we're talking to colleagues in person in a conference room.
Maren: To be fair though, you can turn off self-view.
Marshall: That’s true. But even more than the self-view feature, just having cameras on us is stressful in a way that taps into our evolutionary wiring.
Christine: Ooh I’m listening.
Marshall: Have either of you ever been out in the world and felt like someone is watching you?
Christine: Oh, that's like all the time, even though it's not true.
Maren: It's usually my dog.
Marshall: Well, I don't know about your dog, but this phenomenon is exactly what happens when we're on a video call. Millions of years of evolution has taught us that when someone is looking at us, we need to look back to determine if they're a friend or a threat. And now we spend hours every day with big faces staring at us from our screens.
That brings me back to my old friend, the amygdala. The amygdala you might recall, is the part of our brain that controls the fight or flight response. And it turns out that when a lot of people are staring at you, whether it's on the street or on a screen, your amygdala is going crazy and dumping stress hormones into your body. So not only is having our camera on exhausting, it's stressful.
Maren: I did find research though that suggests that you can tame this amygdala, uh, basically just by resizing your browser so that these faces aren't as up close and really large. So this is a solvable problem.
Christine: There is a lot of research that you're both doing. So first of all, so thank you for all of that. But it does seem like there's some conflicting evidence here, and I don't totally know where I land yet. Maren, I'm hearing, cameras on gives us more information, which makes us better at reading each other, better at communicating. But Marshall, I'm hearing that this extra information might actually be exhausting us and maybe it’s stressing us out, making us worse at reading each other and connecting. I'm honestly at a bit of a stalemate right now for where I'm leaning.
Marshall: Hmm. Yeah, that's fair. Although I can't read your facial expressions cuz I've reduced the size of your face to a pin head.
Maren: Personally, I'm, I've turned off self-view, so I'm feeling good. I'm feeling confident. No, no amygdala activation here. But let me, let me see if I can tip this balance then. Um, Christine, let's try this angle. Do you wanna get promoted?
Marshall: Oh boy.
Christine: Uh, oh. It's weird for me to say on this show, but I, I have, I have a very loaded answer to that, in that promotions are not the thing to motivate me. I'm so sorry to say, but I do like career growth.
Maren: All right. I can work with that. I can work with that. So, my last argument, assuming you wanna grow your career, is that keeping video on is better for your career. And, and this is very much a like it or not – I don't like making this argument – but video does make it more obvious that you're present and engaged. And there was actually a poll run by a company called Vyopta. They polled 500 executives and 92% said they don't see a long-term future for employees who turn their cameras off.
Christine: Oh, I hate that.
Maren: And 93% said, they believe those employees are less engaged in their work. Again, I don't necessarily like this argument, but I think we have to look the reality around us, which is that if you don't have video on, especially in environments where your teammates and your leaders do, you are perceived as just less engaged and less motivated.
Marshall: Hmm. I hear that Maren. But I gotta say just a second ago, you were pointing out that it is irresponsible to blame video for unfair perceptions of women at work. If anything, video is maybe a symptom of a larger problem. And I can't help but notice the same line of argument here – if leadership has these unfair biases against people with their cameras off, that's the problem we should be addressing.
Maren: Touche, touche. But I do think it's important to be aware of how you're perceived and how that might affect your prospects at work. The underlying idea here is that when you are literally less visible, there's a tendency for your work to become less visible. People will remember you less when you have your camera off. And remember contributions for people they could see more.
Christine: Outta sight outta mind. Makes sense.
Marshall: Yeah. And you, you might be right about all of that, Maren, but I would still be worried that we're defaulting to a behavior that might actually be bad for individuals and bad for teams, and then saying that people who don't conform to this behavior are risking career advancement. I think we need to be very careful here to avoid setting up incentives that encourage presenteeism, you know, just showing up alone gets you rewarded.
Christine: Yeah, it begs the question, is it better to choose a default based on the flawed workplace we currently have today with all of these potential biases? Or is it better to choose a default based on the workplace we want to create ideally?
Marshall: Yeah, and I know that we're not debating policy or mandates today, but I do think we need to be sensitive to the fact that the behaviors and norms that we default to, become soft policies regardless of whether or not it's written down.
Christine: Yeah, totally fair.
Marshall: So I think it's really important for us to ask, what is video good for? What is video bad for? And then take a look at how we're using it and see how that maps against our knowledge of what it's good for and what it's bad for.
And I can tell you that one thing it's bad for is creativity. So in a recent study published in the journal, Nature, researchers found a strong correlation between video conferencing and a decrease in creativity, specifically idea generation.
Now, for anybody who's tried to brainstorm on a Zoom call with 10 colleagues, these results probably aren't that surprising. But what is surprising is the cause. So the researchers identified that eye direction and focus were actually the most likely culprit. And what this means is that they tracked eye movements of people on video calls and found out that when we're Zooming or Skyping or Teaming or huddling, we actually spend more than twice as much time making quote unquote eye contact as we would in person.
And the problem here is that eye contact is a focus activity, and focus is actually very bad for creativity. To be creative, we need to stop focusing and start wandering mentally, visually, and physically – all three of which are pretty hard to do on Zoom. And in the end, the researchers told us, unambiguously, if you wanna get creative, the best thing to do is turn off your video.
Christine: No, yeah that’s totally what our team does. So when we brainstorm, we turn cameras off and brainstorm independently and then when we are done, we turn them back on to, you know, have the discussion portion of the meeting.
Marshall: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to me. You're ahead of the curve.
Christine: Flattery will get you some points.
Marshall: I know this.
Christine: But we are nearing the end of our time and I'm still undecided. So let's hear your final statements.
Maren: All right, I’ll go first. So I think I’ve made the case for the benefits, both personal and professional, to defaulting to cameras on during Zoom meetings. But for me, at the end of the day, this is really about how we're making people feel when we leave video on. Video provides a glimpse into teammates' lives. You can see things like their pets, their plants growing, whether it's snowing or sunny or raining outside. All the little details are the things that help people connect as humans and also feel respected.
Marshall, you mentioned that having cameras on is a focused activity. And I think in a meeting setting, that’s a good thing. People are more likely to actually pay attention rather than multitask when they have their camera on.
Having a camera on, you know, makes the speaker feel heard and talking to a bunch of black boxes is a big drain on energy and morale. I think we've all agreed that we have too many meetings that maybe don't need to be meetings or, you know, maybe a bigger theme here is like, should we really be thinking critically more about what type of meeting we're scheduling in the first place. And that's a separate question, but for meetings that have a clear purpose, a clear scope, and where you are trying to communicate important points to a team, I think it's pretty clear that keeping video on is better.
Christine: A very human-oriented approach. Thanks Maren. Marshall, what's your final thoughts?
Marshall: Well first, if you're seeing people's plants growing, your meeting has gone too long. That’s my first thought.
Christine: Great. Noted.
Marshall: All right. But really I'll say, first off, I'm not sure that I agree that people are less likely to multitask with cameras on. In fact, I have been text messaging my wife and writing Slacks this entire time. None of you knew that, cuz you can't see my hands.
Christine: So rude!
Maren: Rude, yeah. Wow.
Marshall: All right. But joking aside, yeah. I think we can all imagine times when our colleagues were not exactly paying attention on a video call.
Maren: I would never, Marshall.
Marshall: I believe you, Maren, and only you.
And I'll add that rather than a blank, black box that you talked about, my video off image is a picture of me smiling politely with the words “I'm listening” right underneath my face. And I've had lots of people comment that they actually prefer this to my real face. And I've seen other people adopt similar techniques. And I think this actually solves a lot of problems.
But if listeners take just one thing away from our conversation today, I hope it is this: video is just one tool in our meeting toolbox, and I know that y'all know about Maslow's law of the instrument that says, when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. And I'm concerned that we're treating video conferencing technology like Maslow's Hammer and applying it to every meeting – even when what we need is a phone call or a Slack message, or to be honest, more asynchronous collaboration.
Maren: Maybe a fax?
Marshall: Maybe a fax.
Christine: Marshall, Maren, I cannot emphasize how great of a job you both did in your final thoughts. But unfortunately, only one of you can be today’s winner.
So while I think every team should be intentional about what makes sense for any given meeting, I also realize that for many teams today, remote work is still pretty new. And so for today, I still think most of the time we should default to cameras on, which means Maren, congratulations, you are the winner of today’s debate!
Maren: Honestly, I'm shocked. Marshall, I loved your points and the arguments you made were really, you know, thoughtful and honestly now I'm like, “Oh, I should leave video off.”
Marshall: Well if I have converted one person, then I've done my job.
Christine: For anyone out there that wants to dig into the details of this episode, you can see the transcript and other relevant perspectives on work life at atlassian.com/blog. And until next time, I'm Christine Dela Rosa and this is Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian.