Practicing Good Teleconference Hygiene

Look around your home office, or whatever room is standing in for your home office while you are confined to quarters. What do you see?  A Harry Potter wand collection perhaps or just piles of papers that you’ve been promising to file for a hundred years.

While there are plenty of articles on issues around security and file backup while working from home (one of mine is here), I haven’t read much on sanitizing the background you are in front of when you are on a video conference call. Zoom offers “virtual backgrounds” but only if you are sitting in front of a wall or screen with uniform lighting so that the software can detect the difference between you and your background. There are plenty of hilarious examples of people wearing the wrong thing in front of a green screen so that parts of them disappear into the background.

Let’s say that you don’t have a professional green screen setup in whatever is filling in for your office at home. Is there anything that you should look out for in your background? First off, pretend that you are your webcam. You can either fire up your videoconferencing software and see what it sees when your image is on the screen or you can simply face in the same direction that it is pointing and see what it would see.

I am a licensed firearms instructor and one wall of my home office is decorated with framed bullets (yes, collecting “bullet boards” is a thing). But during a conference call, these could be distracting, or worse. To some people, anything having to do with firearms is distressing – and in fact, a school reported a student to police because his teacher saw several BB guns on his wall while he was attending a virtual learning class.

What is in your webcam’s field of view that could be distressing or could open you up to industrial espionage or identity theft? Family photos with names or dates on them? Could you be “outing” a family member who is working undercover for law enforcement, the military or a government agency? Perhaps your significant other gave you a boudoir photo for a special occasion and it is hanging in a position of honor – within view of your webcam.

If you work for a company with a professional button-down image, disheveled stacks of papers might not make for the best background. And could you have binders with customer or competitor names on them in bookshelves behind you? Maybe books by Mapplethorpe or other controversial authors should be moved out of view as well.

A half-dozen years ago I worked on the distributed team of a company with a culture of wry wit. My videoconference background always was a white closet door, but when we decided to attend a conference with a “Zombie Safety Zone” theme, I remembered that I had some zombie targets in my garage. For our next videoconference, I hung one of them behind me. It took a while, but it did get noticed.

While you definitely want to be following all company or industry recommendations on information security and backup, you also should think about practicing good video conferencing hygiene as well. Stay safe, drink plenty of liquids, and think positive thoughts. A little black cloud inside your mind will come across on a webcam – and we don’t need that just now.

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