Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
With so many Americans working from home due to the coronavirus, lots of us are on far more video calls than we ever were before, and it’s pretty evident that we don’t have video etiquette mastered yet. Here are some of my favorite stories I’ve heard recently on video calls gone very wrong.
The person who flossed on camera:
I was on a Zoom the other day and one of the participants flossed her teeth before the meeting began. It was mesmerizing, funny, and awful. I don’t believe the flosser realized that everyone could see her (which I guess is a better problem than not caring?). The host was pretty new to hosting and was obviously trying to figure out what to say or how to shut off her video; the flosser stopped before either happened.
The married couple fighting on Zoom:
Last week I watched a married couple basically have a fight while on Zoom video. The wife was on the call and the husband came in looking annoyed and she’s pointing to the laptop and shaking her head, like, “Hey, I’m on a meeting call here.” And he’s scowling and looking pissed. They were muted but you could still tell they were arguing. He finally flounced out of the room with her looking daggers in his back. Very uncomfortable for everyone else on the call. … You could tell by people’s body language (at least if you were on “Gallery View”) that people were trying not to notice but also couldn’t look away, kind of like a car wreck.
The person with road rage:
The other day I was on a conference video call with over 100 people in my employer’s leadership. I work at a large hospital, and this is a daily, Very Serious meeting about COVID. One of the meeting presenters was talking, and at the very moment he took a pause, someone on the line yelled, “This is a FUCKING freeway!”
Silence, a few dropped jaws on the people I could see on the video, and then the VP curtly saying, “You might want to mute yourself now.”
The silence was extra funny because this call is nonstop talking.
This is uncomfortable:
I am on some medication at the moment that comes with certain gastrointestinal, uh, side effects. Which hit me the other day during a MS Teams meeting and it was URGENT. I switched to mobile, triple-checked that both my camera and mic were switched off, and took care of business. It felt super weird being able to hear my colleagues carrying on a very normal meeting while doing something very private, but nobody was the wiser. I washed my hands and returned to my computer feeling like I had just pulled off a bank heist. We are living in the weirdest timeline.
The matchmaking grandma:
A co-worker of mine was on a video call with one of her direct reports, and the direct report’s grandma wandered into the room and thought the manager was his secret girlfriend.
She kept asking her questions about her suitability for “my sweet boy,” as her grandson tried to wrestle her out of the room.
The nude husband:
One of our colleagues, perfectly groomed and dressed, had neglected to close the door directly behind her while taking a video call from home. Call participants were treated to a view of her husband, wandering down the hallway totally nude.
I once attended a presentation with staff from satellite offices dialing in. … One individual woman sitting right up close to her screen was stuck on as the main feature. She fell asleep. Like, head rolling down to chest and snapping back awake again several times during the CEO’s presentation. Her dozing off was broadcast, the size of a billboard, to the entire meeting. It was glorious.
The person who didn’t remember to mute:
We had a companywide meeting with HR and an exec from a company we were merging with. Someone wasn’t muted, so a woman kept reminding everyone in the chat box to mute their mics, but the background noise persisted. We trudged along, until about 10 minutes into New Exec’s speech when we learned the person with their mic on was that same woman … when she declared to someone nearby, “WOW. He is just a GOD-AWFUL presenter.”
The mute neglector, Volume 2:
I work with someone who forgot to mute himself while taking a call during a videoconference. The call was him getting a rejection from another company.
The mute neglector, Volume 3:
A VP at my company, in a meeting with a pretty big client, turned to his wife and said, “This is the biggest waste of my f’ing time.”
It got very silent for a few seconds, and the client took it like a champ and pretended it never happened.
The kid having a tantrum:
My colleague let her son screech for a few minutes in the background of a conference call and was like, “I am going to just let him have his tantrum.” It was so annoying as she had to be asked to mute herself so we could continue on.
The person really enjoying working from home:
Caught one direct hire sipping on a big glass of wine. Tried to ignore it at the time so I could talk to her about it later until she then lit a joint. Ummmm … yikes.
The parrot pranking the dogs:
I had to call a colleague in the evening once to get info about a patient. We were having a perfectly normal professional conversation when all hell broke loose behind him. I could tell both his dogs were barking frantically but couldn’t figure out what the rest of the noise was, and I was concerned. “Are you OK?” Deep sigh. “We have a parrot, and the parrot has learned to call the dogs. He waits until the dogs come in the room and then imitates my wife. When the dogs can’t find her, they lose their minds.”
A few growing pains are to be expected as we all adjust to the new normal of video calls. It’s possible we’ll all be Zoom pros in a few months, but given the amount of reply-all abuse and other email sins we still see two decades after email entered widespread use, we probably have a long way to go.