When I conducted a (admittedly unscientific) LinkedIn poll, more than 90 percent of respondents said they were required to leave their cameras on during a Zoom or Teams call — regardless of the number of participants, or the likelihood they would be expected to verbally participate.
Much like Bill Gates, who once upon a time memorized license plate numbers so he could tell which Microsoft employees worked late, plenty of bosses clearly see video call cameras as a proxy for engagement and focus.
Sounds logical: If you can’t see what people are doing, how can you make sure they’re paying attention?
Unfortunately, the result is a whole lot of people staring at a whole lot of screens — and worrying more about performing for the camera than actually doing their jobs.
Think about the typical in-person meeting. When one person talked, a few looked at the speaker. Others took notes. Others jotted down issues they might raise later, or information they wanted to share with their teams. Others looked for supporting or conflicting data.
In the best meetings — where interacting, analyzing, and making great decisions was the goal — rarely did everyone feel they needed to be “on” at all times. Seldom did everyone feel the need to stare at the speaker to show they were paying attention.
Almost never did everyone feel that everyone else in the meeting was looking at them — or at the very least could be looking at them — at all times.
And then there’s the pressure to respond quickly: A 2014 study showed that delays in replying to a question or prompt as short as 1.2 seconds made other people in a teleconference perceive the responder as less focused.
All of which means many teleconferences are more about social pressure, whether real or implied, than about results.
And means time lost to performing for the camera is time that can’t be spent on thought. Analysis. Reading the temperature of the “room.” Sniffing out unstated agendas. Building consensus. Overcoming objections. Finding the best answer.
Great bosses lead and manage by meaningful expectations and meaningful deliverables. In a meeting, the quality of what people say is the deliverable: their ideas. Their creativity. Their analysis. Their willingness to take responsibility and embrace accountability.
So remove the camera performance pressure and encourage employees to turn their feeds off and on.
And free them up to perform in a way that actually matters.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.