“I got caught out not paying attention on a Zoom call. What should I do?”

Written by The Honest Boss

Remote working has blurred the lines between work and home – sometimes with awkward results. Here, the Honest Boss helps one woman navigate the boundaries. 

“I didn’t realise my camera was on during a virtual all-hands meeting and I was lying in bed, barely clothed and watching TV on my iPad. Some close colleagues of mine WhatsApped me to say that they could see me on the call, but I’m not sure if my boss – or any of the other senior members of the team on the call – did. I’m dying of embarrassment and painfully aware of how unprofessional it was of me (but surely everyone pops calls on passively while they do other things around the house, right?) But should I say something?”

Chelsea, 27, product designer

Blimey, you’ve got yourself in aright lather! Let’s face it, we have all giggled at some of the hilarious Zoombombing stories that went viral during lockdown. And most of them are much more outrageous than yours. There’s the one about the girl who goes to the toilet while her colleagues look on aghast. Or the other where the kids interrupt an incredibly earnest dad while he’s trying in vain to communicate a serious point during a news report.

It sounds to me that you may just about have gotten away with your indiscretion.Although your colleagues spotted your more-than-casual attitude on camera, your senior managers have not mentioned it and appear to be ignoring your Zoomtastic performance. Count yourself lucky. There are plenty of Zoom stories that have gone viral for all the wrong reasons and where the main characters usually get the sack. There is one notorious example of a journalist caught masturbating during a virtual meeting who then got promptly fired from his 27-year career. His employers simply could not see past his exposing behaviour. He tried to make amends by seeking treatment and volunteering for charity work, but all to no avail. He said he just wasn’t thinking when he did it but admits in retrospect that his Zoom error was completely disrespectful to his team.

Your faux pas is nowhere near as heinous a crime as his, but you could be similarly accused of disrespecting those who were on your call. Even though you thought your camera was off, you are quite open about not really caring about the meeting and make the assumption that everyone else shares your indolent approach. Now might be a good time to ask yourself: are you being fair? Could your attitude possibly be affecting others in a way you haven’t considered?

Your email reminded me immediately of the breakout star of lockdown: “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver.” The Jackie Weaver in question took charge of a chaotic Zoom and decided to remove some of the troublemakers with the press of a button. She became a viral sensation as we were all experiencing badly run Zoom calls at the time. I can sympathise that you were probably wondering why on earth you were even invited to your meeting – it sounds as though you weren’t expecting to be called upon or even mentioned. And many of us are guilty of tucking one device sneakily under another so we can scroll or shop to ease our boredom. But there is a serious point to consider. If we want hybrid working to be the new norm, then are we at risk of screwing it up if we don’t play by the rules?

When virtual meetings started in earnest at the beginning of lockdown, they were pretty awful. None of us really knew what we were doing. Two years later and I think most of us have got the hang of it, and we now even dress and apply make-up properly to ensure the lighting flatters our skin tone. We’ve all learned how to speak in turn, not interrupt each other and we’ve stopped inviting people who don’t need to be there. In my experience, virtual meetings have become as good as the IRL version, if not better, as everyone seems more polite.

Maybe your company never got the memo and continues to run its virtual meetings poorly. If that’s the case, then you’ve got to find a way to influence their improvement. It’s good that you’re admitting to being unprofessional, but it’s time to get over your embarrassment as your bosses either didn’t notice or have chosen not to say anything. But it would be very risky to repeat the offence. It would be so much better for everyone if you gently ask your line manager what is expected of you in a meeting.

There are plenty of ideas available online about how a good meeting should be run – virtual or otherwise. You could consider sharing some best practices about what makes a great Zoom. For example, if it’s longer than 30 minutes, suggest a comfort break of five minutes; make it interactive by using the chat and breakout rooms; take turns in hosting or always appoint a co-host. I’m sure you can think of inventive ways to liven matters up that are more suitable for your team. Taking centre stage, lying semi-naked in bed while scrolling through Netflix is probably not one of them.

Image designed by Klawe Rzeczy

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