WFH- The Visual Performance
Back in March, I sat at my desk at work, waiting for news. I gathered my things and closed my laptop as if it was just another end to a workweek. Like many, I left the office thinking we would be back in a few short months. Oh, how wrong I was. An announcement went out from corporate. COVID-19 had made its way into the United States and was now spreading in an unprecedented way through communities, infecting what we thought then were unnamed souls. Those of us who never worked from home before were now finding ourselves vulnerable, the outside world looking in. You might say that this highlighted the inequities that many people face every day. We were now all aware of our colleague's personal lives. We found out things like, how small Monica's house is and how many kids David has or even that Maria has a cat named Princess. It was a forced awareness that we all believed ended with just the surroundings we had on camera.
When you turn on the camera, you realize a few things. You care way too much about what you and your background look like - all of the things you are self-conscious about are highlighted for all to see. I found out that I play with my hair when I am thinking and when an awkward situation comes up, I giggle nervously. I also tend to touch my face a billion times, and I am very animated. What was supposed to be a meeting with an agenda and a hard stop turns into a visual performance. We are no longer focusing on the point of the meeting, but we are all glued to the screen judging each other's quirks and analyzing the state of where our colleagues live. Now you might compare this to verbal and physical communication but, in-person interactions, especially in a professional setting, are based solely on the information on what you see at work. This means that while in an office setting, where coworkers have dressed accordingly, appropriate decisions are made and appropriate reactions happen. Moving this meeting virtually (due to the pandemic) adds distractions that don't quite fit the mold of what we consider "business appropriate". Employees no longer have a designated space to separate work from their personal lives. This is where two worlds collide. This is where the performance begins. Lights-camera-action.
At first, we newbies started work from home like any other day. But over time, we began to redefine what professionalism meant in a virtual setting. We ditched our high heels for socks and our work slacks for jeans. Our backgrounds were not as important as the subject at hand and while dogs and cats wandered into screen view, we tended to embrace it. Virtual interactions limit how we communicate with each other. It can add an additional barrier to navigating how we communicate basic information, all while having faces on your screen staring at each other. The challenge comes when not only is your work performance critiqued but now your visual performance is as well. We opened our homes to our colleagues and now bias has worked its way into how we are viewed professionally. I had a situation where my visual performance was critiqued. They said I made inappropriate facial reactions, twirled my hair, and laughed during inapt subject matters. This was all said in the same breathe as "there are some areas of your work that are not meeting our expectations in your role." Keep in mind, we are all human, trying to live during a pandemic, experiencing demonstrations to address social injustice, and honestly, what an inappropriate thing to say to a person.
It should not be required to have employees turn on their cameras. Being professional means showing up however you are and engaging in the conversation. Employees shouldn't be critiqued on how they appear on camera; background and all. Lastly, it is never appropriate to comment on a colleague's mannerisms. Attending a meeting should never turn into a performance. None of us are living our best lives right now. Words matter and how you lead your team during a time of crisis can determine the future of the organization and if you are in a position to lead a team, I hope that you are kind, supportive ( in your teams well being and their professional career), and authentic. Never accept being bullied for who you are.