‘We can’t decide what to do about our backgrounds.’
This question arose recently during an online communication workshop I was running for the senior team at a law firm.
I cast my eye across the framed faces on my screen. Most people were evidently sitting in a home office. Some, had blurred their background, so I couldn’t tell where they were. A few had opted for a virtual background: there were some tasteful interiors and a hip-looking coffee house. One person was apparently dialling in from space.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘there are three options, and we can see all three on this call. Let’s look at each in turn.’
(i) Visually, the least discordant. You are where you appear to be, in a real space.
(ii) The personal touch sets a relaxed tone and puts others at their ease.
(iii) Objects and decor stimulate small talk.
(i) Not everyone has a ‘professional’ working space at home.
(ii) If you are interrupted, you cannot cover up.
(iii) There is a lack of uniformity across a team.
(i) You can work from a convenient spot at home without doing a major makeover.
(ii) There is a degree of connection between you and your surroundings.
(iii) Others at the meeting can focus on you, not on your room.
(i) People might wonder what you are hiding.
(ii) It is rather artificial: you can appear somewhat floaty.
(iii) When you move, the blur effect ‘leaks’, so that bits of your room come in and out of focus.
(i) There is an opportunity to communicate a strong corporate identity.
(ii) A relevant background might stimulate conversation about the company.
(iii) A fun background could lighten the mood.
(i) Requires a green screen to work well; frequent glitches can be distracting.
(ii) The artifice is usually evident, and you appear disconnected.
(iii) Can be somewhat clinical and impersonal.
As we weighed up the various options, the discussion opened out.
Clients love our old building with its traditional decor,’ one person pointed out. ‘Couldn’t we use different photos of our offices as virtual backgrounds?’
The senior partner thought for a moment. ‘I lean towards natural backgrounds, warts and all – or pets and all,’ she laughed as her cat jumped onto her lap. ‘It seems more honest.’
Another colleague joined in. ‘Yes, but consistency is important. Sorry, guys, but we are a bit of a jumble.’ Someone else agreed. ‘If we all have blurred backgrounds, the focus is on us.’
Another attendee had switched across to a virtual background, and now sat in front of the striking company logo. ‘We have such great branding. Let’s make use of it.’
At MSB Executive, we don’t believe that one size fits all. In this case, I offered a fourth option – and for this team, it seemed the best fit. I called it “Branded Natural”. Everyone on the team was to place an object carrying the company logo somewhere in their webcam view. That could be a picture hung on a wall or placed in a photo holder on the desk. It could be a standing banner somewhere in the room. They might all have exactly the same object, or all have different ones. It might not even be a logo – was there a company motto? An animal or object that represented their core values?
I’ll find out what they chose at our follow-up workshop in a few weeks. But the discussion was a reminder of how vital the visual message is. Online meetings present unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to saying who we are before we’ve said a word.