Stop Judging People for Their Zoom Backgrounds
It’s time to acknowledge how our biases about people’s private spaces affect us all
At a dinner conversation recently, one woman told me that analyzing an interviewee’s home background gave her clues on whether the person was a good fit for their company. She looked for things like messiness and the kinds of books on the shelves. To a certain extent, this makes some sense. If these potential new hires would be expected to interface with clients from their homes, then it’s reasonable to assess the level of professionalism that they present. The problem is that analyzing the background of someone’s video screen could quite easily lead to bias (we never know, after all, why someone’s background isn’t pristine on that given day) or wasn’t “inviting” or “alluring” enough. Choosing employees based on who has the most “beautiful” video background could exacerbate homogeneity and a lack of diversity at work.
Amidst the ongoing debates about when and how to reopen offices, it seems certain that more of us will be working from home in the post-pandemic era than ever before. Noting the newfound importance of these backgrounds, the Twitter account @ratemyskyperoom issues praise to Elizabeth Warren (“The rug really ties the room together”) while cautioning Thomas Friedman (“Work on lighting”). Recently, AOC got a 6 out of 10 for problems including a “minor cord violation.” But amid the jokey references to wall mandalas, Keith Haring posters, and dying spider plants, the two definitions of background seem to have converged. It’s worth taking a step back to acknowledge the way these judgments about our previously private spaces can affect all of us.
As an expert on the ways in which body language has infiltrated our digital communications, I’ve made it a lifelong practice to explore the unconscious biases we show to any group defined as “other.” And virtual meetings have given rise to a new set of biases in our digital body language I never would have expected.
First, am I allowed to say that I’m awfully good at Zoom? I have all the right gear — a Logitech 4K HD camera, two ring lights, and, as my background, a 5-by-7-foot room with a whiteboard behind me. I’m a geriatric millennial who has good analog and digital body language. Sharing a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with my family, I do everything to ensure my so-called presentation is as professional and inviting as possible.
Recently, a client who had always complimented my virtual presentations, said that if I planned on selling my services to a second member of his business team, I should position a bookshelf behind me, as it would look “friendlier.” Put off, but wanting to get the gig, I rented a room in a friend’s business complex that featured, you guessed it, a friendly, welcoming bookshelf. I showed up an hour before the meeting with my camera, ring light, and laptop, put on lipstick and makeup and, like an ingenue auditioning for the top brass at MGM, had my meeting.
I got the job, but the whole experience felt inauthentic and wrong. Looking back, the comments from these colleagues about the space behind me falling short of expectations seemed directed less at me than at cultural differences on Zoom in general. At our backgrounds, in other words. Being told that my background was (I’m reading between the lines here) humorless, withholding, and unfriendly felt like I missed the business formal memo and showed up in jeans.
Another problem? A “pretty” background does not equal a “pretty” meeting. One CEO I know had a perfectly curated video streaming corner but sucked at actually running his virtual meetings. During town halls, he lectured by reading from a script, barely looked into the camera and never used the chat to engage employees. The clean white background just made him seem more distant and aloof.
In an era when many people are reexamining assumptions, it seems we’ve displaced our critical, nitpicky lenses onto bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and home offices. We need to make allowances for the fact that people are now living and working in one — sometimes very small — space.
Having a designer-perfect Zoom background doesn’t count for much if you’re not engaging genuinely with bosses, colleagues, families, and friends. As we lower our masks to celebrate reopening, let’s focus on creating genuine connection — even if it has to continue to be on Zoom — without assumptions, generalizations, or impossible standards of perfection. Rather than the square footage of our homes, or the presence of a bookcase, shouldn’t we be focusing on that?
Erica Dhawan is a teamwork expert and the author of the new book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance.