The case for video off

The case for video off

Video conferencing etiquette is a hotly contested issue.

Last year, I wrote about why I recommend "Brady bunch" video conferencing, especially for hybrid remote teams (teams with some, but not all, remote workers). This is great when video needs to be on; but should "video on" be the default?

In this post, I advocate for leaving video off by default because it reduces communication and drains remote workers. I also provide guidelines for when to "opt in" to video.

Video increases the barriers for communication

There are times when it's easier to talk it out. There's also times when you haven't brushed your hair, put on a work shirt, or don't have good lighting.

Video on cultures force people to choose between video and text communication - with nothing in between. (Sure, you could phone call someone, but that often feels more heavyweight than a video call).

Choosing video wastes time and energy. Workers must get in front of the window, put on the right shirt, brush their hair, and then stare directly into the eyes of everyone else on the call.

Choosing text could be worse; they may not respond quickly or at all. If they do respond, you could waste time discussing things fragmented over hours that you could have resolved quickly in a minute or two. Or, you might go back and forth for a while before deciding to just get on a video call anyways. Furthermore, opting to use text over video removes opportunities to build closeness.

The result? "Let's just jump on a call" becomes a more difficult option, and so people use it less.

Video is draining

"Zoom fatigue," at this point, is a more well-studied topic (see WSJ, HBR, TED). There are several reasons why video is more exhausting than audio.

First, video conferencing forces everyone to stare at everyone. When you're meeting a group of people in person, you all take turns looking at different people, and you have breaks in eye contact. Video is a lot more intense, as you're staring at everyone.

On video, you're looking "in the eyes" of many more people, including yourself!

Second, you're staring at yourself. Staring at yourself and your own expressions triggers more intense emotions, which leads to fatigue.

Finally, the possibility of home and work colliding is stressful. What if the kids run into the room? Did I hide my embarrassing photos from my background? Are my PJ bottoms in the frame? These questions add additional stress to video conferencing.

When to turn on video

For these reasons, I believe it's best to default to video off. However, there is one major benefit of video - it builds more closeness than audio-only. As a result, it's worth considering video when the goal is to build closeness.

Team bonding / culture building exercises are a great time to turn on video. I'd still make it optional, but encouraged, in case someone has an extraordinary situation at home.

If you have a recurring meeting like a 1 on 1, I'd probably leave video off after the first one.

Sales meetings are less clear, but worth consideration. Will you build more closeness with your client with video on, or will you scare them away? I recommend "reading the room" for the first call, and then defaulting to video off for sustained relationships to reduce friction.

Additional resources

If you're going to turn on video, I'd recommend  "Brady bunch" video conferencing so that everyone's equal.

I'm the co-founder of Pragli, a virtual office for remote teams. Pragli consists of rooms that are video-off by default. We use avatars to create a "face in the room" without the stresses of video. If you're interested, you can learn more here.

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