Your (video call) background says a lot about you
A view from Sue Unerman

Your (video call) background says a lot about you

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 fair. And, now, you will be judged on your background (this might not be conscious, but it is an instinctive System 1 thinking judgment), whether or not this is fair either.

Most people I speak to on video call reveal their actual background. In my own case, this is a disorganised but wide-ranging collection of books that actually don’t belong to me but to other family members and a mantelpiece cluttered with mementos. My colleague Claudine has been in front of a steely wall all week this week and my chief executive 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 the participant was a key worker – but he just hadn’t wanted to reveal his room. Then there are people whose living space just makes you envious. I have been told of one CEO whose palatial home is so aspirational (there are statues, expensive real art and pillars) that his team recommended that he relocate to a smaller room to stay empathetic with 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 in a one-bed flat or sharing space with others and those fortunate enough to be able to settle into a regular makeshift office area or 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 "new nearly normal". The article states: "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 intensive care unit workers leave us with nothing to complain about), it is true that day-long video calls are tiring. And it may be true that it is easier on introverts than extroverts, since introverts don’t need so much stimulus from others.

Direct Line Group managing director 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, as we point out in The Glass Wall, can be helpful when you need a balance to the emotional "coronacoaster" of the working week. 

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

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
Picture: Getty Images