Leave your camera off at stand-ups

Why turning on your camera at trivial meetings is not worth the hassle.

Mikołaj, looking slightly to the right from behind.

Mikołaj Biernat

Apr 7, 2022


6 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen more and more of us change our workplace from the office to our homes. Whether a personal choice or a company-wide rule, this change has been radical — for both employees and managers.

But, life goes on — and the search for making the home office more productive and pleasant began.

The good ol’ way

Meetings are an integral part of every office routine. They’re particularly relevant if your manager wants you to be more agile. And if you work at a tech company, you might be attending a special kind of meeting — the daily stand-up.

It’s a short (think 15-minute) huddle, where your team discusses the ongoing matter at the beginning of each workday. Its agenda varies between organizations, but it’s these three questions that each team member answers:

  1. What did you do yesterday?

  2. What are you working on today?

  3. Is there anything that’s blocking you?

Back at the office, teams used to run their stand-ups wherever everybody naturally gathered in the morning (the coffee machine being a common choice).

Now, they hop on a video call.

Direct translation

This widely accessible technology is a no-brainer blanket replacement for all other means of communication. Controversial as it might be, my beef with real-time messaging is a treat for another time.

It’s how we conduct these calls I want to focus on. Especially the single requirement that isn’t as critical as your manager, peers, or even you might think — the video itself.

When switching the environment from the office to our homes, we took some of the features that were bound to the office and translated them directly into the remote workspace. Whereas it sounds good in theory, after 2+ years of working from home, I think that turning on your camera for a trivial, non-personal meeting, such as your daily stand-up, is more problematic than helpful.

A case for leaving your camera off

Ever-present screen sharing

So, it’s time for the stand-up. You join the call, say "hi" to each other, and after a few minutes of small talk, someone tells you to get started. One of you share their screen and go through the agenda. And that’s where cameras fail (already).

When you share your screen via video conferencing app, it takes up the other attendees’ whole screen to show your presentation at its true scale. The participants follow your cursor pointing out things on the screen, listening to your monologue to understand the context.

So if everybody’s focused on a single screen, why bother with the cameras? No one notices each others’ faces anyway because they pay attention to what’s happening on the screen that’s being shared. On top of that, some software hides the camera views altogether when in screen sharing mode.

If a meeting relies on screen sharing, put the presentation in the center of attention. Don’t distract people from what you’re talking about with the camera feed — few attendees are looking at it anyway.

Variable quality

At the office, your company should provide you with the best Internet connection they can. Even if you’re all working in the same building, you still use a cloud service and regularly join calls with people from outside the office.

But, at your home office, you’re on your own. Sure, you can ask your company to reimburse your Internet costs. But even if they agree, the fastest connection speeds may not be available in residential buildings. So your Internet won’t be as reliable as the infrastructure at the office. And you need stable Internet for high quality video calls.

According to the Zoom’s system requirements, you need about 10 times more Internet bandwidth to send and receive video than for voice-only communication.

Those requirements might be too high for some setups. Think about all the apps running in the background, and even folks who feel confident about their Internet speed might see drops in quality.

And while occasionally worse video quality is acceptable, the audio usually suffers too, which leaves both you and the others frustrated because you can’t hear yourself clearly.

How to prevent this? Don’t turn on your camera. Others won’t see you, but they’ll hear you well — that’s far more important. And if you don’t want to see others, check the conference app settings. Many have introduced an option to stop receiving incoming video.

Right to privacy

Outside 9–5 (or whenever you work), your home is not your office. And while some feel comfortable with their coworkers studying details of the interior of their apartments, I’m self-conscious about people grasping what’s happening in the background when I join a call with my camera on.

You can arrange your workstation in such a way so that your camera faces a neutral background. But what if you have to answer the door that’s in the frame? Or what if the folks you live with walk behind you without realizing that you’re on video? Or what if you wanna get a glass of water while talking, so you take your laptop with you to the kitchen?

This wouldn’t be a problem at the office because it’s an impersonal environment. It’s the company that owns the building. Everyone sitting there knows that they’re in a shared space. But when you’re working from home, you want to control what you’re showing.

It’s your apartment and your privacy. Don’t feel uncomfortable protecting it. Or you’ll be mocked by Apple.

Daily fatigue

When you’re in a meeting with your camera turned on, it feels like everyone is watching you. So you begin to stress about your posture: you sit more upright than usual (even if it feels uncomfortable); you make unnatural facial expressions (because smart people look like this, right?); you smile awkwardly if you don’t have anything to add to the discussion.

And that’s not only based on a couple personal anecdotes or testimonials from people who suffer from zoom fatigue (for once, I’m glad that it’s called after the worst app in its league). This research published by Journal of Applied Psychology shows that people who had their camera on during their calls felt fatigue.

Here, I emphasize stand-ups to avoid generalization (turning on your camera on 1:1 meetings sounds reasonable). But the longer the meeting, the more it makes sense to opt out of the video.

Meeting in the middle

What if some stand-ups include face-to-face discussion? Some information (like feedback) is received better when you can see the other person. Besides, not everything exists in the digital space — what if you sketched a quick mockup on a piece of paper that you wanna show your team?

Then you can turn on your camera only for that part of the call. It’s a good way to balance the polarizing preferences about the matter. Just don’t force either way on anyone.