Can I make a remote employee turn on their camera?

Flexibility is key when managing staff working from home, says two HR leaders

Can I make a remote employee turn on their camera?

Video conferencing applications have become part and parcel of our ‘new normal’ as we make an effort to stay connected, communicate and ease collaboration while we work remotely.

Frequent calls have become the norm about eight months in of dealing with the impact of the pandemic. But even as we get used to the early morning ‘stand-up’ meetings, weekly team updates, company town halls, and quick check-ins, the etiquette around video conferencing may still seem unclear to some.

Do you have to switch on your video function all the time or can you leave it off on some calls? From a leader’s perspective, can you insist that your team members turn on their cameras?

‘It depends’, an HR director told us.

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Why staff may prefer to be ‘off camera’
“From a human resources perspective, while we can encourage everyone to turn on their cameras to increase the visual interaction, thus continuing to build human connections virtually, we should not expect nor demand it,” said Lance Foo, HRD Asia Pacific at Fiserv.

Maintaining relationships during the pandemic is a ‘whole new territory’ that requires a generous amount of understanding and trust – and the same goes for video calls. Foo said that there may be numerous reasons why someone turned up to a call with their camera off.

“Not everyone is a natural digital native and there will always be those who are more self-conscious about how they appear,” she told HRD. “Sometimes the staff may be having a difficult day and would be more comfortable staying off camera for specific meetings.”

Other times, it may simply ‘not be convenient’ to switch the camera on while working from home – even if we had the option of selecting a virtual background, she added.

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A lack of filters and boundaries
Her insights tied in with Sunil Setlur’s, chief people officer at Go-Jek, sentiments around the evolving idea of psychological safety at work.

During a discussion, Setlur said that people are now at their ‘most vulnerable’ and bringing your authentic self to work has taken on a new meaning with everyone working from home.

“There’s no filter,” he said. “If you don’t have a good connection, it’s going to show [in the call]. If you have a messy background, it’s going to show.

“People will see your kid or your elderly aunt walking up and down, and there’s nothing you can do. So people’s lives have become a little bit more open than they were used to.”

Read more: Kids on a conference call? Tips for parents working from home

Employees at Go-Jek used to be embarrassed about such encounters, he said, but they’re now feeling ‘okay’ about the unexpected background distractions.

It took a while, but he’s noticed that many have ditched the ‘fancy’ virtual backgrounds and have become more comfortable allowing colleagues to get a peek into their personal lives.

Read more: Official accidentally broadcasts himself showering during meeting

How to ask staff to turn their camera on
While it’s clear that practicing empathy and understanding is important even during video calls, there may be circumstances that you will need your team to have their cameras on during an online meeting.

Some examples include virtual events held to facilitate key discussions or for team building purposes, as well as remote interviews, said Foo. In these cases, leaders should give staff a heads up.

“For communications to be more effective and impactful, participants should be informed in advance that they would be required to turn on their cameras and are free to choose a background to mask their environment if needed,” she said.

“During other times, today’s leaders should know that they have to be flexible with their remote employees. There has to be a level of trust that people who work together are able to fully participate and perform even if they are not on camera.

“One can coach and encourage, but one cannot control.”

Read more: Is your boss ‘spying’ on you working from home?

With remote working arrangements looking like it’s here to stay for a long while, leaders will need to continue to practise flexibility in the way they manage their employees.

As businesses decide on whether their organisation can go ‘fully remote’, Setlur is clear about one this: these uncertain times are ‘fundamentally changing’ the way we work, and it is up to leaders enable and support staff.

“We’re going to have to work from home for some part of our lives [or] for the rest of our professional careers,” he said. “So how do we as a company enable that and make it comfortable for people?”

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