One of the many interesting observations from the pandemic is the evolution of people’s Zoom backgrounds. Initially, everyone was excited to play with the virtual backgrounds available online. I saw people log in from virtual versions of a dive bar, Versailles, and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Eventually, talking to colleagues who were literally fading into the background or looked like their hair was on fire got old, and people allowed their real surroundings to be seen. Since an overriding—and necessary—theme of the pandemic has been “cut everyone some slack,” having people lead meetings from their bedrooms or attend seminars with the breakfast dishes in the background is something we’ve come to accept. That said, we’ve all seen the YouTube videos of videoconferencing gone awry, and there’s even a Twitter account that evaluates the environments of guests on news programs who participate remotely.
But what about when workplaces reopen, and hybrid schedules—some days in the office, some at home—become the norm for some companies? At that point, with the threat of COVID no longer excusing our less-than-professional image, we will need to think about the evolving expectations of our appearance online. What can we do to ensure that our career trajectory is based on the way we do our jobs, not how we look doing them? Here are my recommendations to prepare for a hybrid workplace. Some of them are free, and some of them may get pricey. Consider it an investment in your future, and do as much as you comfortably can.
Where you connect from to attend a hybrid meeting
If your workplace will be adopting hybrid schedules, videoconferencing is going to be a permanent part of your work life. Start thinking now about your Zoom-visible workspace so that you can be set up comfortably—and look professional and organized—when your hybrid schedule starts.
The first thing to consider is where you’re going to be logging in from. What’s been okay for remote work so far might not be as acceptable for the long haul. Keep in mind that when we’re on-site at work, we have basically the same spaces and furnishings that everyone else has, so there are fewer variables we need to control. In our homes, we show a lot more about how we’re different from our coworkers, so as much as possible, you should make sure that what you’re showing is deliberate and appropriate.
- The characteristics of your space might depend on your job. I know a couple—one a lawyer and one a college professor—who work from the same apartment but have very different approaches to the workspace people see in virtual meetings. The college professor has her real bookcases behind her. They’re a little untidy, but they look pretty much like the ones in her office at school. The lawyer bought a large green screen and projects an image of her law firm’s conference room on it, rather than showing the personal items that are actually hung up behind her. Each job has a different level of leeway with what the remote workspace needs to be. What is yours?
- Think about what your space says about your economic status. This is a bit tricky, and ultimately, it may not feel very fair. Let’s say Bert and Ernie are colleagues with the same title and level of seniority. Bert’s spouse makes a significant salary, and Bert lives in a large house with his own high-tech study. Ernie is a single parent with student loan debts to pay off. He lives in an apartment near a firehouse and does his remote work in his kitchen. Can you see ways that both situations project impressions Bert and Ernie might want to control?
- Here’s a possible solution for Bert and Ernie. If the company they work for had a “virtual background only” policy, the apparent disparity between the two would be avoided altogether. We’ve worked with organizations that provide a variety of branded virtual backgrounds to all employees. Each background fits nicely within the organization’s overall brand. Would your organization consider a policy like this?
- Take an outsider’s look at the political or cultural signals your space sends. Are those signals something you’re comfortable sharing with people at work? If not, you might need to take down a few posters or rearrange the books on your shelves. Basically, if you don’t want to be defined by it, don’t show it.
Once you’ve chosen your location, here are some additional suggestions for making your remote space office worthy.
- Tidy up! The cheapest and easiest way to improve your space is to clean and organize it. Loose papers, unmade beds, and coffee cups and take-out bags from last week all make you look unprofessional—and like you just woke up two minutes before the meeting.
- Organize your work product. When a colleague is standing in your office at work while you fumble around searching for a file, there are other things for her to look at and talk about. Zoom makes everything feel like it takes longer, so project efficiency by having everything you need easily at hand.
- Improve your lighting. At a minimum, play with the lamps and overhead light sources you already have. Open a Zoom room and see what makes you look well lit, alert, and healthy. If what’s at home isn’t enough, you can get an adjustable ring light for about $60. Of course, the more you’re willing to spend, the more options there are.
- The brightest light source you have should be in front of you.
- A ring light will be described as having warm or cool light, and some are adjustable between the two. If you have to choose, pick warm.
- If there’s a window in your workroom, check your lighting at different times of day to make sure the natural light and artificial light balance well.
- If you wear glasses, try to position your light sources so they don’t reflect in your lenses.
- Improve your audio. Get on a Zoom meeting with a friend—or just record yourself talking on Zoom—to hear how you sound. If you are echoing, if there’s a lot of extra noise from outside your space, or if you are hard to hear, you should consider investing in a headset. The headset microphone will pick up what’s closest to it—your voice—and help filter out some extraneous noises. It will also reduce echo and increase your clarity and volume.
- Check your furnishings. I saved this for last because it’s the most expensive, but your chair should not only be comfortable and unobtrusive, it should also facilitate you sitting up straight and centered in the camera frame. The days of curling up in a corner of the sofa for a team Zoom meeting are coming to an end.
How you look during hybrid meetings
Once you have optimized your remote workspace, the next step is to optimize you. Again, we’ve become tolerant of a wide variety of looks during the pandemic—from “dress shirt and tie on top, boxers on the bottom” to bedhead to clothing that maybe looks better than it smells. As hybrid workplaces become the norm, you’ll not only need to remember how to dress for the actual office, but you’ll also need to up your game at home. This is more of a mental shift than anything. If you look like the person who might walk into the conference room and be ready to dive into work—even if you’re really in your living room—you will be perceived as such.
Depending on your workplace culture, work-from-home clothes may continue to be more casual than dressing for the office, but they should still be several steps up from your lockdown look. Spend some time thinking about what you want to project in order to seem professional, focused, and just as on top of things as if you were in the office.
Here are some ideas to get you back to work-readiness:
- Go through your closet, try on your work clothes, and prioritize the things that fit. After over a year of sweatpants, you don’t want any surprises when you actually need to dress up again.
- Dry clean or wash the things that fit. If they’ve been collecting dust for a year, you will want them freshened.
- Get a haircut as soon as you feel comfortable going to a salon or barbershop. As possible, you should plan for at least two before you expect yourself to be “work-ready.” That pandemic outgrowth may take some tweaking. If you color your hair, see to those roots!
- Get your teeth cleaned as soon as you feel comfortable going to the dentist.
- If you were in the habit of wearing makeup to work but haven’t bothered for Zoom calls, go through your makeup bag and toss whatever is dried out or expired. Replace it with colors that will help you look healthy and bright-eyed on Zoom.
These concerns may sound trivial compared with everything else going on in your world, but because so much is unknown about the hybrid workplace many of us are about to experience—how we will be evaluated, what expectations will be—there’s no harm in being prepared. Understanding how to balance remote and in-office work will be a factor in people’s career trajectories for the foreseeable future. Make sure you’re ready to shine.