The webcam on/off conundrum

Colin Ellis
5 min readNov 2, 2022
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Here’s a story you may have missed last week:

In short, an employee was asked to keep his webcam on all day for a training program and refused, citing a violation of his privacy rights. The Dutch court (where the case was brought as that’s where the employee lives) agreed with him. They referred to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which talks to the conditions attached to observing employees. For their part, the employer argued that it’s no different than being in the office for the session, but to no avail.

Now… you’re likely to fall into two camps when reading this:

  1. ‘That’s outrageous! He’s an employee of the company and if they say he has to have his camera on, he has to have his camera ON, end of.’
  2. ‘That’s brilliant, good for him!’ I’m going to do that if my company asks me to do the same.’

It’s worth mentioning that had the employee actually been based in Florida then he would have lost his case as (and as the article notes) you can get fired for breathing heavily, wearing a loud shirt and many other things in most states of the US, but I digress.

The argument about cameras off/on has been raging for the last couple of months and speaks to the changing nature of culture in the post-pandemic, experimental-hybrid age. It’s definitely the question I’m asked the most after speeches or during culture workshops and of course, it can be easily rectified. It just needs some common sense, increased trust, a growth mindset and, in some instances, a behaviour change. Yep, it’s as easy as that.

I’m not going to discuss the history of video conferencing, the problem of Zoom fatigue (yes, it’s real) or why your video interactions would be much better with cat filters. Instead I’m going to pose some questions for you to ask of yourselves:

  1. Why do you want to see people in the first place? Just because you have the capability for video doesn’t mean that you have to use it all the time. Some of us remember the halcyon days huddled around a dark grey audio box that resembled a miniature Eastern European airport, shouting at the top of our voices or asking people to move closer to the terminal. I don’t remember work not getting done as a result of not being able to see them. So when you’re setting up your interaction ask yourself whether it’s necessary to have cameras on at all or just use audio and specify that in the calendar invite.
  2. Why do you want cameras on all the time? OK, so you’ve decided that it will be useful for people to see each other, but why all the time? Most video conference tools don’t have the capacity to show everyone’s picture at the same time, so wouldn’t it be better for people to enable their cameras when they’re working in small groups or else when they’re asked to contribute? Again, it just needs to be specified in the invitation that that’s the expectation
  3. Are your trust issues the real problem? Tough one this as your first answer will probably be ‘how dare you, no, it’s definitely not me!’ (cough Dunning Kruger cough). But be honest with yourself — and I totally understand — is the fact that you can’t actually see people at work causing you a problem? After all, that’s how most of us have worked all of our lives, so it’s only right that you’d feel uncomfortable with the change. But instead of thinking the worst of people, how about you try thinking the best of them instead, you might be pleasantly surprised?
  4. Are you rubbish at setting expectations? Not just about cameras on/off, but also about the expected outputs? After all, this could be the driver for number 3 above. You’re rubbish about setting expectations, they don’t deliver to the expectations that you haven’t set and consequently you don’t trust them to deliver. What’s stopping you developing this much needed skill to ensure that you’re never disappointed with the outcome?
  5. Do you enjoy monitoring your employees’ electronic activity? I know, it sounds ludicrous, but some managers/organisations do. They waste countless hours looking at how long the little green Teams light is on, or wondering why they’re not ‘online’ or answering their emails (it’s an asynchronous communication tool, people!). Monitoring employees — unless you have evidence that they’re involved in fraudulent or illegal activity of course — is an insidious practice. It’s undermining your culture and you should stop it straight away. Which is more of an order, than a question, sorry about that.
  6. Are you keeping your camera off because you want to hide? It would be wrong of me to compile this list without at least considering the option that there are some people out there who just don’t want to be part of a team, put a shift in or do anything else that connects them to other humans. If this is you (and to be clear even the most extreme introverts understand that being part of a team means being visible and contributing) then you need to ask yourself whether this is the right job for you or whether it’s time to start your own thing and be the master of your own video calls?

What we don’t want, however, is for organisations to start creating policies and procedures around whether cameras are on or off. This is just another example of where common sense, consistency of approach, and a willingness from employees to be flexible, is the key to success, not mandating an approach that people will ultimately find a way around.

What’s your organisation doing around the webcam on/off conundrum? And what would you add to this list?

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com