Virtual Backgrounds .... friend or foe?
It's amazing to think, 12 months ago most of us wouldn't have dreamt of going out in public wearing a face mask, gone 4 months without a haircut, or enabled our webcam 8 times a day when attending virtual meetings, but obviously, we are living in very different times where these, and many other things have become the norm.
As a technologist, I have watched with great interest the upsurge in the use of video as we have struggled to come to terms with the concept of prolonged periods of working 'virtually' from home. It's amazing to witness the inevitable delight of seeing all of your smartly dressed colleagues (from the waist up) on-screen madly waving in a gallery view when you join a team conference call, many sporting some sort of exotic background scene to mask where they really are. I remember in one meeting I was so immersed in trying to solve a 'self-elected conundrum of why my boss's cityscape background looked so familiar, I completely zoned out and missed an important question that a meeting member had asked me. I found the recovery an embarrassing lesson learned.
This got me thinking about the whole topic of Virtual backgrounds (VB’s) and how we use them in a virtual life; are they a good thing or not? It is fair to say, they have certainly helped soften the feeling of enforced isolation by addressing the stigma around enabling our webcams when on calls as it allows us to protect our privacy by not sharing our home décor choices or the fact that our workspace is the kitchen table which we share with other family members. On this point I must say a big thank you to noise suppression microphones, they are a must in the shared office environment.
On the less positive side, as we have become more familiar with VB’s, so it has invoked the competitive spirit that lays within. Yes, you all know what I mean, the advent of inter-team or department competition of who can come up with the craziest VB or create the strangest human ‘object-metaphases’ on a call due to poor lighting. It has become an art form. Finally, enabling VB’s can influence our computer performance, so I urge you to test them out thoroughly before using them on critical calls.
In conclusion, I have come up with some simple rule-of-thumb guiding principles when using virtual backgrounds which have served my users well during our enforced virtual isolation and I hope these might be of use to you:
1. Correct equipment – Always ensure you have good lighting and if possible, a green screen background as this can have a positive effect of background quality. I have found the screens that hook on the back of your chairs to be well worth the money.
2. External Virtual Calls with clients - keep the background simple and preferably in sync with your colleagues. A corporate logo or a picture of an office building tends to work well, as does a slogan.
3. Internal inter-divisional / Team Building Virtual Calls – Think of using the Virtual Background real estate to share information about yourself that others would find interesting such as the projects you’re currently working on, your hobbies/interests, or which picture best describes you.
4. Internal Team Social Events – Organizations must be commended for sponsoring a virtual social event to keep staff to spirits high and this is where users can get very creative by holding background competitions. Here are a couple of examples such as guess where I am, comical ones where a user’s live webcam image is imposed on a static image, a picture of a bottle of your favorite wine which you can describe during a cheese and wine session, etc, etc.
As with most technologies, there is often both a positive and negative side, and Virtual Backgrounds are no exception to this. In my opinion, as long as they are used wisely (appropriate to the aims of the meeting) and there is no obvious performance hit then Virtual Backgrounds are a positive addition to any collaboration tools.