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With everyone working from home with COVID-19 restrictions and participating in online meetings, can your employer demand that you turn on your video stream? Isn't it enough to have your static photo up and completely participate in the call/meeting? Does your video camera HAVE to be on? Not everyone is comfortable broadcasting themselves online.

There are only six people on the call. We were having an active conversation. All other participants had their cameras on and I was told to turn my camera on. This is a small private company in Atlanta, GA. I am a full time paid employee. No special contracts.

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  • Did you ask why they need it? Whether it's for easy identification of the speaking person, or to check if you're attentive? – Sourav Ghosh Apr 1 '20 at 14:29
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    can your employer demand that you turn on your video stream? Sure they can ask, people can ask you to do anything. You cannot be forced to comply, but also they cannot be forced to keep you employed. What you probably want to know is how to excuse yourself from enabling a webcam in the meeting, when directly asked by the company? As putting it in "demand" and "refusal" terms makes things confontational. – Tymoteusz Paul Apr 1 '20 at 14:48
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    Given that you are normally experienced in 3D video, full surround sound audio and smell (latin word escapes me right now) at an angle of your colleagues chosing, is there something specific that makes you uncomfortable being seen in 2D in a way you have full control over? Even in countries with worker protection laws that have teeth (not the US), you already agreed to way more than showing yourself on a screen. Does it get recorded? – nvoigt Apr 2 '20 at 8:09
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    It's a quarter century now since Dilbert figured out a way to avoid getting dressed for a video call. dilbert.com/strip/1994-06-07 – O. Jones Apr 2 '20 at 10:09
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    "Not everyone is comfortable broadcasting themselves online." I'm not attacking your personal opinion, but "broadcast" is a bit of an overstatement. Broadcasting implies public access on a large scale (literally "broad casting"), which a meeting with 6 known and directly invited people isn't. Do you feel uncomfortable with people at work (presumably the same people as in the conference call) seeing your face? Why is this different? – Flater Apr 2 '20 at 12:52
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Do you mean legally ? If so then I'm not sure on the law especially given that you are in the USA.

In terms of them broadcasting you, I would suggest this is a private conference call that presumably isn't being recorded and sent to the world then you are not being "broadcast".

It sounds more like you are uncomfortable with being on video and I know a lot of people are in the same boat (probably others on the call are as well). For the moment being I would suggest that you try to put aside this discomfort rather than complaining about it. The working from home part of your job is temporary, if for an extended period of time. If all goes well you'll eventually be able to go back into the office and anyone can stare at your face in person when having a conversation with you.

In terms of why are they insisting on you showing video. It's probably as they feel it's friendlier to talk to a face than just to a static image. Might also be that they feel it's easier to read your emotion and as such the conversation will be less likely to lead to confrontation if you know what I mean.

I would remember that if you want to continue being employed by these people you should being doing the very best of your abilities to work under the conditions. There are millions of people who have just lost their job and all you are being asked to do is show the webcam on a conference call. Surely showing your webcam is better than being fired right?

That's what the company can do if you refuse to comply with their working conditions which are safe, legal, ethical ...etc. I don't see how showing your webcam is illegal, unsafe, unethical or anything else that could violate local labour laws. For example is a bricklayer refused to use the cement provided to lay their bricks because they preferred a different type of cement (again not because it was unsafe but just preference) a company would be well within their rights to fire the employee for not doing the job.

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Can they "demand" it? Sure. Can they force you to comply? In what sense? They certainly can't send a SWAT team to break down the door of your house, tie you to the chair, and turn the camera on.

Conceivably they could fire you. That seems to me to be a rather extreme response to something like this, but I suppose if you refused and the boss insisted and it turned into an escalating argument, that could happen.

You say that you are in the US, so your contract is probably "at will", which means the company can fire you for any reason not specifically prohibited by law. "Illegal" here would mean things like racial discrimination or sexual harassment, which I doubt apply here. (Unless the boss is demanding that you turn on the camera and then stand in front of it naked or something crazy like that.)

Really, I'd think if the boss says, "hey, turn on your camera" and you said, "Oh, I can't, I'm wearing my pajamas" or "this room is a mess, I don't want anyone to see it", that everyone would just laugh and move on. If you have some good reason, say what it is. If it's something you can fix for the next conference call, fix it so this doesn't become an ongoing issue.

I work from home. My company occasionally has video calls. The first couple of times we all turned on the cameras, but after that the wonder and excitement of seeing each other quickly wore off and now everyone leaves them off and we just show screen shots.

(When I first got this job, a friend asked me if I sat at the computer all day in my underwear. And I cried, "Oh man, now you've put an image of all the other employees sitting at their computers in their underwear when we have conference calls. If I worked with a group of beautiful young girls that might be a pleasant image. But I work with a bunch of overweight, balding old men.")

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  • Of course, it is meant with job-related consequences in the question, not with swat teams. +1 for the last absatz! – guest Apr 1 '20 at 20:59
  • I don't think it's that far-fetched to be harming continued employment by not complying. A lot of companies are downsizing, and when figure out who to make redundant, people that are seen to be having difficult adapting to new working conditions may be the first to go. – Gregory Currie Apr 2 '20 at 15:17
  • @GregoryCurrie I suppose it depends on the company, but I'd be very surprised to hear a boss say, "Turn on your camera or you're fired!" But I can well see a much more vague and general problem, that the boss says to himself "this employee is not very co-operative", and that in the long term it might be a factor in hindering advancement opportunities or, if combined with other things, even getting fired. – Jay Apr 2 '20 at 15:40
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Our development team has been "mostly home-based anyway" for many years, and we make heavy use of Microsoft Teams® video-conferencing. (Even though most of us live in or near the same city, and do this for convenience.)

As it turns out, some participants are "merely listening." Maybe making the occasional comment on "chat." These participants very often mute their audio and video – unless they want to "participate," in which case they turn both of these things on, at least for the duration.

However... if your particular team or manager prefers "live video," why not just "shave, brush your hair, make sure the background isn't too-busy, and accommodate them?" Does it really matter, one way or the other?


P.S.: Yes, I work at home. As I have done off-and-on for the past thirty(!) years.

No, I do not work in my underwear.

"When I am outside of that room, I am At Home.™ When I am inside that room, I am At Work™ for my employer or paying client, having just completed a commute of zero feet." This (self-) discipline is absolute, and it has served me very well.

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  • Don't know about Zoom & Co, but Teams has a function to blur out your background by now. Works pretty fine. They are working on reducing crisp-eating noise as well. And if there are more than four particpants you only see the videostream of those actively talking. By the way, we have an unwritten policy to inform each other front-up if a meeting will be with video... – Jessica Apr 7 '20 at 9:02
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    This works for people who have worked from home for decades and have a dedicated home office room. A friend of mine is 100% in office, and has no space at home. His computer desk is set up in a corner such that all video conference participants could see all his household members going to the loo or shower. Thankfully, he is the one who has to stay in the office because his colleagues are at-the risk group. – Alexander Jun 17 '20 at 12:07
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They can't legally compel you, but they can ask, request, encourage or coax you into doing it.

Put another way, if you don't feel comfortable with having your webcam on, there's really nothing legally that your employer can do to take action against you for now having it on.

To allude to the reason why this is a thing - with more people working from home, it is the case that the interpersonal aspect of working with colleagues is diminished when you can't really see their body language. To be fair to the company, I would want to see my colleagues on webcam so that I at least know that they're somewhat okay with the circumstances, but I respect my colleagues enough to know that, if they don't want to show their face, they don't have to.

Besides, there are valid reasons to not have your webcam on - putting on or taking off hoodies is a good reason; I wear them all the time and I know no one really wants to watch me taking it off/putting it on throughout the course of the day, as my body temperature decides that it was really cold a minute ago but now it's really hot.

If the peer pressure is getting too much, pull your manager to the side and let them know (in chat) that you're uncomfortable with having your webcam on, and that the requests to turn it on are distracting from the nature of work at hand.

If they still don't respect that, then...it isn't like fully remote companies aren't hiring.

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    Another reason is the extra bandwidth it can take. If your connection is a bit flaky anyway, adding video might kill it. And if everyone in the country is using video, then my connection certainly won't work, because it already is flaky. – thursdaysgeek Apr 1 '20 at 16:43
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    "Yeah, but hey ... why not just try to be a nice team-player?" Any skin off your nose? Really? ... If you've got bandwidth problems, yeah, sure. But if you're working as a part of a team and the leader (or, anyone ...) in that team really would prefer to "see you," and you can technically accommodate that request ... ... ... ... (shrug...) – Mike Robinson Apr 1 '20 at 21:55
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One solution is that may be possible is to rate limit your connection. If you are connecting to the internet through a home router of some sort that connects to your ISPs device then you may be able to set a rate limit before your meetings so that voice is fine but video chokes up the bandwidth. When you log in your video would be all choppy and the voice may be also. Then your boss may be okay with you turning the video off so that the audio improves. Worth a shot.

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  • I upvote this. Managers should encourage rather than force us. If they force, we can show them why best solutions are by reasoning and not ny brute force – zameb Feb 17 at 13:46

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