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Ready for Your Closeup?

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Image: fizkes-
In another WorkSpace Connect post, I wrote about the ways that pervasive use of video communications is likely to affect governance issues in the enterprise — for example, the likelihood that video meetings may need to be archived for compliance purposes. I speculated that people’s behavior is likely to be affected by their awareness that a video record will be kept of much that they do, especially in critical moments like important meetings.
But there’s also just the everyday self-consciousness, as this article from the online magazine Slate reminds us. The author talked to several of the leading videoconferencing providers for tips about how to look better on video, and innovations they’re planning to make things better for the camera-shy. The writer’s experience showed that looking like a presentable version of yourself on camera took a fair amount of attention both to the environment — lighting, the space you’re in — and to the person — hair and makeup, clothing, etc. I can’t imagine many people want to put in that kind of effort — they’ll either go on camera in their natural state, because they don’t mind looking how they look; or they’ll turn off their camera, which, anecdotally, I find a lot of people doing these days, at least in desktop-based conferences.
It brings you back to the basic question: Why are we doing video in the first place? One answer is because we can; I think this is what we assume the younger generation of workers feels. They choose video because they’ve never not chosen video, anytime, anywhere.
But if there’s a purpose to video, it’s to let you connect with people — look into their eyes, watch their facial expressions when you say something controversial in a meeting or criticize someone’s ideas. I think the challenges in achieving that level of detail differ for desktop participants versus those in conference-room.
For desktop participants — those dialing into a videoconference from their home office or other remote location, using a webcam on their laptop — I’ve found that their video still can come through clear enough to recognize subtleties of facial expressions, even if the overall production values (lighting, background) are bad. The problems tend to occur when the video stream itself is poor. You can’t effectively pick up nonverbal cues if the person’s image is constantly freezing up and jumping around because the network is congested, which impairs the quality of the video transmission.
When it comes to people in a conference room, I find the biggest challenge is that many conference rooms really weren’t built for video, and the people on the other end look like they’re sitting at the far side of a Denny’s from where the camera is placed. The faces are too small to really make out expressions, the lighting is poor, and the camera is usually fixed, so you look at the same static view regardless of who’s speaking.
The answer here is conference room design that’s optimized for video. A video-optimized room might have multiple cameras, for example, so that the videoconferencing software could pan one camera to the active speaker within the room while using the other cameras to show non-speaking participants. This sort of setup would allow for a meaningful view of both the active speaker and the rest of the group at that site, so a remote participant could gauge the in-room participants’ reactions to the speaker.
Enterprises can’t do much about employees’ personal feelings about being on video and how they look on camera. Over time, comfort with being on camera will grow, and “video on” will likely become the default setting for more people. But for video to be a really useful part of doing business, enterprises should make sure that remote workers have the best network access possible, and video software that optimizes picture quality for video sent over unmanaged networks like the Internet. At the same time, they should prioritize video presentation when designing their conference rooms.