Erasmus quipped, “Clothes make the man.” In today’s virtual world, your video background is your virtual outfit.
How you dress says something about you, it sends a signal. This is true even, or especially, in offices where there is no dress code. Look no further than the sales team. People doing enterprise sales traditionally dressed up on days with client meetings, while internal people, like software engineers wore t-shirts. It may not be a full suit, but it’s a lot harder to close a three-million-dollar deal with a non-tech company when you’re wearing a Family Guy t-shirt.
This goes both ways. Although I work in tech and can wear a t-shirt, I always liked dressing up, typically wearing French cuff shirts. On nights I would go out to an after-work event to recruit engineers I intentionally dressed down; otherwise, I would have been seen as a “suit” and not as engineer myself, worthy of their time.
Things have gotten a lot more casual. While enterprise sales may still not be done in t-shirts, we’re dressing down more. But we’re also exposing more–our homes.
During the early days of covid the “credibility bookshelf” was important to talking heads on TV. The suit wasn’t enough, now you needed the right background. Video meetings weren’t new, but they had been done in conference rooms before, which looked sufficiently businessy. Our homes did not; they weren’t even set up to be. Then covid changed everything.
Today many people work from home part time. Certainly no one is offended by a child, pet, or husband roaming in the background (name three things that are totally unaware they are in your shot). Unlike your desk at work, which is totally in your control, it’s not fair to judge someone on their background, since their home wasn’t designed for this, and they don’t have total control over it. Nevertheless, you are being judged on it. Life isn’t fair.
What’s in your background? A plain wall? Legos and action figures? A curated bookcase. These all send a signal, rightly or wrongly.
You may not have total control over your background but there are a few options.
It may be that you can’t remove all the distractions, e.g., it gets very hot, and the ceiling fan is needed to not turn into a puddle, or in a small apartment there’s always someone in the background. In those cases, you can blur your background or choose to use a virtual background. If the latter, that, too, sends a signal about you, if you’re using the company logo, on a beach, or the bridge of the Enterprise. Of course, unlike your clothes which are generally the same throughout the day, you can quickly switch your virtual background between internal meetings with your team and those with other divisions or customers.
We might be more casual in a covid-endemic world, but we’re still being judged on our appearance. And now your appearance, rightly or wrongly, includes your background. As with your careers, be intentional.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.