At the beginning of the pandemic it seemed like the world divided into two camps: those who relied on digital backgrounds for their video calls, and those who put major time and effort into perfecting what viewers see of their home office background. Over two years later, and some of us are still struggling with what’s behind us while we’re on our video calls. But I’d like to suggest that it doesn’t really matter.
Think about what your desk looked like the last time you worked in a physical office. Among other items, mine had a life-size plastic lobster. I’m guessing at least some of your colleagues had desks that were completely disorganized. Did you assume that meant they were unprofessional? Were you so distracted by their Doctor Who mug or pairs of extra shoes when you stopped by their desk that you found it impossible to talk to them? I’m guessing not. But if that’s the case, why are we so worried about our couple inches of real estate on a video call?
Like so many things regarding work culture, this is an expectation that comes from the top down. Senior leadership, more likely to be slightly older and living in slightly larger homes, can be sitting in their pristine home offices with a curated selection of art or books behind them. They have the space for that. But if that’s the image they project, it can put pressure on others to do something similar, and sometimes that’s not practical
Recent studies have shown that among all workers, the youngest tend to be the least enthusiastic about working remotely full-time. While much of the discussion has focused on their desire for socialization and mentorship, let’s not forget that this is a demographic that’s also likely to be living in a group home, small apartment, or even still with their parents. An unmade bed in the background or an old poster of a boy band from high school doesn’t mean a person will be bad at their job, and creating an environment that seems to value pristine video backgrounds only serves to alienate young workers more.
I wouldn’t say virtual backgrounds are the answer, either. Many of them can be just as distracting as whatever is actually behind a person, and that’s assuming the user has a computer that’s advanced enough to display it properly. Otherwise people are treated to a pixelated mess that draws even more attention to themselves.
Maybe it’s time we started embracing the fact that working remotely means you might be working from somewhere that’s not absolutely perfect. My office room is in the process of being converted to a baby’s room, for example, and I’m OK with that. It’s a crib behind me, not a chorus line mid-performance. How distracting can it really be?
With so many other aspects of remote work to stress us out, the space behind us shouldn’t be one of them. You want your team to feel comfortable with each other and like they can be themselves, and they can’t do that if they’re always paranoid that they might have accidentally left a pile of laundry where it could be visible.