Etiquette dilemmas in a virtual world

Our mostly virtual world, due to COVID-19, has created a slew of new etiquette dilemmas. People are wondering everything from whether they should have their video on or off in a Zoom meeting; what to do with kids or pets that make an appearance in a meeting; when, if ever, is eating and drinking acceptable in a meeting and much more. While many of the etiquette rules that we follow for in-person interactions apply to virtual encounters, there are a few situations that differ.

The following are issues for which clients and colleagues have asked for guidance.

Video on or off?

Most businesses have transitioned from conference calls to video meetings, using a variety of platforms, including Zoom, WebEx, Go to Meeting, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. I’m asked often if one should turn their video on or keep it off. For several reasons I am an advocate for video on.

When you have your video off it signals you’re not really present, even if you are. Meeting participants have no idea if you’ve stepped away for a coffee refill, if you’re multitasking or if you’re in your pajamas. The ramification is people tend to dismiss those who are not visible even if you are fully engaged. As I mentioned to some young professionals, if you want to be considered for promotions and choice projects you need to be visible. If you’re a salesperson or small business owner, your Hollywood Squares black box will keep you from being visible and relatable to potential clients or customers.

The other reason I’m a champion for keeping your video on is if the meeting is held on a virtual meeting platform it is a video meeting, not a conference call. People want to see your lovely face. And, being able to see each other helps us to connect, which is especially important now when we can’t get together in person.

Think of video meetings as the virtual equivalent to an in-person meeting. If you were invited to an in-person meeting would you sit in the corner with a bag over your head? Probably not. Turn that video on so people know they are talking to an engaged human being.

But wait, there are some exceptions to keeping your video on.

  • If you have to move yourself or your device around. It’s very distracting.
  • To answer the phone and have a conversation. I always mute both my landline and mobile phone before a meeting.
  • When family members or pets cause a distraction in camera view.
  • If your internet is unstable. Video takes a lot of bandwidth. Shutting your video off should help with that.
  • When you are attending a large meeting, such as a church service, where you are listening and rarely, if ever speaking. True confession, when attending this type of meeting I turn my video off so that I can walk in place to get my steps in for the day and not bother anyone.

For those few occasions when you do turn your video off, please upload a nice headshot to your profile so that your photo replaces that soul sucking black box. Your smiling face is much friendlier.

Kid and pet appearances

Working from home can make it difficult to separate home and work life, especially if you don’t have a private office with a door. If you have kids who tend to interrupt your meetings there are steps you can take to (mostly) prevent this. Before the gathering starts explain that you have a meeting that you need to attend and it’s very important Johnny doesn’t interrupt you. Give your child something to do while you’re occupied and promise you will spend time with him after the meeting or whenever you are able to do so. Keep your promise so that your child knows he will get your attention after the event and doesn’t feel the need to interrupt you to get your focus.

If you child does disrupt your meeting. Turn your video off and mute yourself while you address whatever your kiddo needs and then send her off again so you can focus on the business at hand. Turn your video back on and, when appropriate and apologize to the group for the interruption.

When your kitty waltzes across your screen, move her off your desk and try to get her to stay away from the camera. Not always easy with cats. Pets on your lap are okay if you aren’t cooing over them and they aren’t visible on camera the entire time. If it’s an important meeting, do everything you can to keep pets out. Your attention should be on the meeting, not on your pet.

All that said, if you are in a more casual or social meeting, kids and pets are welcome. In fact, they can be a nice conversation starter and make you appear more relatable.

Virtual meeting attire

People have gotten much more casual in their dress for virtual gatherings. I understand; nothing beats pajama pants and a favorite t-shirt for comfort; but what message are you sending others, especially if you have to stand up? When getting dressed for the day, think of your audience. If you’re meeting with clients, VIPs or making a presentation, dress the part. Make sure your outfit conveys professionalism and adds to your credibility. For those more formal or important occasions a dress shirt, nice blouse and dress slacks or khaki pants – in case you do need to stand up – are appropriate. Avoid wearing t-shirts for any work meeting unless you work in the tech industry or it’s casual Friday.

Eating and drinking

A good rule of thumb for eating or drinking in a virtual meeting is to consider what the etiquette is for in-person meetings. Typically you wouldn’t eat in a work meeting unless it took place over lunch and eating is encouraged. Socially, you wouldn’t eat when others aren’t dining. Drinking a beverage of some sort would be appropriate in an in-person meeting, therefore it’s fine for an online gathering. If you’re having a happy hour get together with friends or even coworkers, snacks and drinks would be appropriate. But, because microphones tend to pick up more noise, do mute yourself when you take a sip or when you eat. I personally do not like eating on camera because I don’t enjoy looking at people eat on video. So, if you need to chew heartily or the food is messy please turn your video off.

Bandwidth problems

It happens all the time. You’re in a meeting and someone keeps cutting out or their voice lags and they have no idea. You might wonder if you should say something or if that would be rude. It’s actually good etiquette to mention to the speaker that they are cutting out and you missed what they said. The person can then take steps to decrease their bandwidth and speak again. If you are that person and get an “internet unstable” message  or people continually miss what you are saying turn your video off. If you have regular internet issues, this article may be helpful.

As we continue to meet virtually I’m sure additional etiquette issues will pop up. Feel free to respond with any questions or thoughts you have about virtual meeting etiquette.

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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