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Bland Walls and Zoom Calls: Putting Your Best Screen Forward on Web-Based Meetings

Like most of working America, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time lately on web-based meetings. Many of them are necessary, productive, and worthwhile. Then, there are a few that I find myself doing this… thing.

It started one day to keep myself from falling asleep after my fifth hour on a “camera-on” call, and after that, it became a habit. Or a challenge. Or both.

I found myself tracking the ratio of beige walls to number of people on the call.

Allow me to explain.

I’d been staring at the Brady Bunch-like grid on my Mac screen, when I said to myself (hopefully in my head, or at least muted), “why do all of these people look like they’re sitting in the same room?”

And it hit me. I was zoning out to a sea of plain backgrounds. I counted that first day. Nineteen bare walls behind 25 total attendees. The next day, 12 out of 17. I think I couldn’t count one or two because of those faux green screen options. (What were they hiding ifyouknowwhatimean?)

It continued like that for a few more meetings, until, in a most unscientific manner, I calculated around a 70% beige and barren wall-rate-for-web-meeting calls. This has led to all sorts of either complex or completely simple ideas. I’m not sure which.

1. Are people that work their lives over web-based meetings significantly more likely to exist in muted color lands?

2. Does the blandness of one’s walls correspond to the creativity of one’s soul?

3. Do any of these people feel like rainbows trapped inside beige monsters, yearning for release like rays of light across late summer kitchens' gleaming hardwood floors?

A plain wall in Annie's house

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We can't let this made-up phenomenon allow us to fall prey to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias: (n) “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories”

As I glance behind me (or forward at my little screen square) on my own web-based calls, taking note of my painted walls, windows, vintage signs, paintings, and weirdo art, could it actually be me and the other roughly 30% that are breaking some unspecified video-call rule? Are we the distracters? The outliers? Does no one, in fact, want to see our shit? Am I supposed to find the stuff-free wall and sit in front of it? Is this in the fine print I agreed to after too much coffee and a rapid mouse-trigger finger?


Perhaps not.

It is incorrect to judge the creativity of another based on wall presence on a web-based call. And yet, it’s surprising to see so much sameness in the way of outward self-expression. I’ll admit, big, loud color-blasted lives aren’t for everyone. In fact, much of my own home is centered around peaceful living with hidden touches of my creative personality. I’m simply surprised to see that in this golden opportunity to sneak in a little bit of personality, to share a hint of something more about ourselves in this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime offline-but-online era, we’d be more than bland.

Okay. Let’s get serious for a moment. I love my job. When it comes to how much of your badass creative background gets shown on a professional video, many factors come into play. These might include the level of accepted professional attire necessary for the video meeting, who you are meeting with, how well you know the attendees, and the general accepted atmosphere of the group. It's ultimately up to you take responsibility in determining your company's level of professional attire and engagement. In the face of working from home, this includes not only dressing yourself, but the environment behind you.

Think about what your background says about you. Are you portraying yourself in an intended or unintended way? Is your space messy or neat? Is there a nature view? A city skyline? A collection of troll dolls? Do you have that incredible nude artwork from The Shining hanging over your decadent four-poster bed?** Maybe it's best to head down to the dining room.

Need to get to know your co-workers better? A little creative thought into your visual environment can be fodder for later conversation. A friend of mine shared this great anecdote:

"When the president of our company addresses us on a video meeting, he's always sitting in front of a bookshelf. I like to scan his books, and I've noticed that he has a lot of science fiction on his shelves. I love science fiction. If I ever end up talking to him in person, I'm going to ask him about his books."

Possible background? A slightly more interesting shelf

Unless you’re a compulsive painter, I’d guess most of us have some of that builder-standard beige wall somewhere in our homes. It's a great backdrop for an interview with a new company; a call with someone you've never met. But, in the age of laptops, portable devices, and the spirit of sharing, I’d challenge you to sit in front of the more exciting wall: the wall with your art; the one that gives a little glimpse into your interesting/creative/big side. The side that wants to take up more of the space you were granted in this world. It’s one piece in the “live big” mantra, but if you’re not there yet, that’s okay. Show the fun wall for no other reason than this: give the other callers a little something more to zone out with. Be reasonable. Be as professional as the situation demands while still being you.

Don't be a statistic in some horrifically fudged and unscientific online blog post.

**Did you try clicking on that? Come on! We're a classy joint. ;)

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