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How Casual is Too Casual for Zoom?
Experts explain how to know what remote work etiquette is appropriate.
By Allison Torres Burtka
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6 minute read

People’s ideas of work-appropriateness may have shifted since the COVID-19 pandemic began and more people have been working remotely and interacting through Zoom and other work communication platforms. Drawing the line between appropriately casual and too informal may be difficult, in both appearance and behavior.

How casual is too casual? Is it okay to show up on Zoom after a run, in running clothes and dripping with sweat?

For attire, pajamas may be where employers and workers draw the line. In a 2020 poll of U.S. workers working remotely, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 17% said they wore PJs as their usual work attire, and about 7% do even when they’re on a video call. Sixty percent said they wore casual or athletic wear such as sweatshirts as their daily attire, but only 34% did for video calls.

When deciding what’s appropriate, context is key. “Think about how you’re coming across,” including the nature of the call and what people’s expectations are, Valerie Frederickson, founder and CEO of Frederickson Partners, told The Org.

For a regular meeting with people you work with closely, it might be fine to show up with bedhead and your dog in your lap. But for a client meeting or presentation, you might want to dial up the professionalism.

If you’re responsible for influencing others in a meeting, you might want to shift into a different mode, said Jessica Gilmartin, head of revenue marketing at Asana. “For me, at least, it helps to be in a different space. I like to dress up—it helps to be in professional attire, because that sort of helps me interact with others in a different way.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to don a suit. “I’ll put a nice scarf on, and maybe a power necklace and some lipstick,” Frederickson said. “For guys, that could be putting on an unwrinkled shirt—maybe even a shirt with a collar.”

Also consider your background on a video call. In a Harvard Business Review survey, most respondents said they’d rather see the actual room you’re in than a virtual background. But sometimes the actual room can be distracting.

In Frederickson’s executive search work, she has had to tell people that the room they’re Zooming from is so ugly or unkempt that it reflects badly on them. “It’s tough for people to think about that,” she said. But at the other extreme, Frederickson said she does Zooms with billionaires in their oceanfront mansions with the waves lapping behind them, and that can also be too distracting.

One CEO Frederickson worked with had an ideal Zoom setup: a charcoal-gray wall, a nice plant on a table and some artwork. But he explained that it wasn’t the ideal room: it was his garage. A media consultant had transformed one spot in his typical-looking garage by painting a patch of the wall and getting him a modern desk and a good lamp. “The CEO told me very proudly that he went to Target and picked up the fake plant for 10 dollars,” she recalled.

Of course, not everyone can set up a workspace in a garage, but it shows that a little adjustment can go a long way. “Good lighting is super important,” Frederickson said. “Buy a $25 ring light and set it up somewhere.” A tripod can also be helpful, to place the camera slightly above you, which is most flattering, she said.

If you have to Zoom from your bedroom, try to place the camera so that the focus isn’t your bed—so that the bed is directly behind you and partially obscured, or you have some artwork on the wall that gives people something else to look at, Frederickson advised.

If the room you’re in isn’t good, sometimes fake backgrounds are your best bet. But ones that make it look like you’re perched on the edge of a precipice might be unnerving or distracting. You also want to avoid using the same one everybody else is using. “I’ve been on calls where there’s been two or three people using the same Golden Gate Bridge background,” Frederickson said.

Beyond appearance, sometimes on-camera behavior might veer into being too casual. It’s hard to know what’s appropriate, because people on the receiving end can be unforgiving, Frederickson said. If it were up to her, “I would say that it was OK for everybody to eat during Zooms as long as they chew with their mouths closed.” But she remembers a Zoom with people who “pulled out the largest salads I’ve ever seen and spent the whole time just shoving salad in their mouths and chomping, and they somehow thought that they could do that and multitask and answer questions.”

If you’re going to eat, try to choose something that you can eat more discreetly, and consider mentioning it. If you say, “Sorry, if you don’t mind, I’m going to be eating my lunch during this call. I just haven’t had time,” people are likely to say it’s no problem, Frederickson said.

The same goes for other intrusions, which may be unavoidable. Some people are Zooming from a laundry room or a kid’s bedroom, or with kids and pets running through, “and I know people get really stressed about that and really embarrassed about it,” said Gilmartin. So she tries to normalize these distractions. “I make sure to say, ‘Hey, I see you’re with your kid, I’d love to say hi,’” she said. “I think that’s really important as a manager to show empathy for the people that you work with that are in really difficult situations at home.”

Timeliness can be an issue on Zoom, said Mary Elizabeth Elkordy, president and founder of Elkordy Global Strategies. In an office, you might factor in time for people to get from room to room. “But for me, I think there’s less of a grace period with remote work for being late,” she said. “I also find that with remote work, people are stacking their calls more.” So she tries to schedule calls for either 25 or 55 minutes so one call doesn’t overlap with the next.

If you need to set boundaries for Zoom, Gilmartin says, “What I’ve learned over time is that the best way to have your team really embrace the norms and embrace the rules is to create them together.” Overall, she added, “I believe the onus is on leadership and people managers to model the behaviors and set an example for their teams to follow.”

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