While some work was being done on her home recently, Sheri Stone took her laptop to her Little Canada garage for a Zoom video work conference.
Rather than give her co-workers a glimpse of her lawn mower, the human resources director for the University of Minnesota libraries rigged up a backdrop: not a green screen, a green bed sheet.
“I didn’t want it to be distracting,” Stone said of the view that her colleagues would have.
With millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders, work during the coronavirus pandemic often means video meetings, which, in turn, means co-workers are getting peeks into each other’s homes.
“It’s really voyeuristic,” said Jay Nuhring, a Minneapolis photo stylist and interior designer. But it’s also “very telling,” he said.
With our homes — as well as ourselves — on camera, we have to worry about more than showing our true hair color or our selection of sweatpants. Whether we intend to share or not, what’s hanging on our walls, our taste in home decor, even our clutter is on display. And if your sense of style hasn’t evolved much beyond the movie posters you got in college, be aware that your co-workers will notice.
When Mark Suess, a Minneapolis architectural interior designer, first saw television newscasters broadcasting from their homes, he thought, “ ‘Oh, that’s how you live.’ Like anything, you start to rate them,” he said. “You can’t help but be judgmental. It’s part of our nature.”
That’s why he and other design professionals recommend taking a good look at what’s in the background when you join a video conference.
Artwork and collections of family photos on the wall behind you can be distracting. Posing in front of diplomas or awards may seem like self-puffery. And anything that makes a political or religious statement is probably not a good idea for a work meeting, Suess said.
Minneapolis interior designer Colleen Slack advises a pared-down look.
“One of the best things you can do is be more minimal,” Slack said.
But you don’t want to sit in front of a blank wall, either.
“If it’s completely stark it looks like you’re in a jail,” she said.
Staged, upgraded or faked
Slack suggests staging your video conference meeting so it only shows a few carefully curated, neutral objects behind you: a group of three vases in black and gray tones rather than, say, a stuffed buffalo head on the wall.
Stone said she has had good results pointing her laptop camera at a blank baby blue wall with a wooden plant stand near her.
To keep things interesting, she’ll periodically switch the plants: mums on one day, hydrangeas on another.
“Just about every day, someone will say, ‘Nice plants,’ ” Stone said.
While she’s found videoconferencing with her university colleagues “interesting because you get to see into somebody’s life, which you don’t normally do,” her experience in human resources makes her sensitive to privacy issues.
“I’ll show people plants,” she said. “That’s the part of my world I’m OK sharing with others.”
If you need some help decorating your makeshift Zoom studio, Jayne Morrison might be of assistance. The Plymouth-based interior designer is planning to market household accessories “to take your Zoom shot up a notch.”
Or you could redecorate your house with a few clicks of your mouse.
Zoom, for example, gives you the option to replace the view of your real interior with a digital image.
The default images offered by Zoom could make it look like you’ve set up your laptop on a beach, you’re bathing under the northern lights or you’re floating in outer space.
You could also take the suggestion of a recent article in an online home and real estate magazine called Curbed that invites you to use one of their photos of stylish interiors — “carefully selected to look sufficiently realistic” — and use that as your home workplace image.
Does that cross some home decorating ethical line?
It’s true that no one will be fooled into thinking that your kitchen table overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge or sits at the base of the Eiffel Tower.
But what if you lead your co-workers into thinking that you sit in front of a bookcase where “colorful book spines naturally weave into an understated yet visually appealing backdrop,” as advertised by Curbed.
Unless done tongue-in-cheek, “I would not do that,” Nuhring said of passing off a photo of someone else’s home as your own. “I think that’s wrong.”
Others, however, think it’s important to have more privacy when you have to videoconference for work or school.
“Zoom backgrounds are more than light joke,” wrote Canadian college student Julia Burnham in a recent tweet. “They’re a shield for low-income students to keep their living situations confidential. Financial inequities in the classroom are on full display when we virtually invite people into our homes.”
Her tweet has gotten nearly 90,000 likes.