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So we had a business meeting the other day via Zoom. All the participants were from their homes, as happening around the world these days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • One of the participants in the meeting was eating, muted, while the camera was on. (a valid behavior in our company when in a physical meeting)

  • Another participant was smoking a cigarette. (against the law when in a physical meeting)

While I had no trouble with the person who ate, it did feel very strange to see the smoking one.

That made me think about what can be considered appropriate to do, or not, during an official meeting?

When the main issue I was thinking about was smoking the cigarette. Is it a valid behavior when one sits in his/her home? Obviously, there is no issue with passive smoking, and seems like the only issue is the visual display of someone who smokes during a meeting.

Keeping in mind that people are from their homes and not sitting in the same meeting room with the other participants.

I don't mean from a law or HR point of view as asked here or extreme and obvious cases of nude and sexual activity.

Can you say that if it's not considered legit in a physical office then it's not considered legit in an online meeting?

What will make you feel awkward and what you will accept as normal?

  • For what I can understand your main issue seems to be the video, or would you like answers to also cover inappropriate behavior in non-video calls? – Laurent S. Nov 19 '20 at 8:33
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    Consider adding a country tag. Smoking on a video meeting, for instance, can be seen differently depending on your local culture. – LP154 Nov 19 '20 at 9:49
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    There was this question recently: Make it mandatory to turn camera on in video meetings at work? But then - you say camera is already switched on. – Bernhard Döbler Nov 19 '20 at 11:15
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    Closely related – mustaccio Nov 19 '20 at 14:51
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    @fattie not around here... I mean you can be remote but I’ve never heard someone call a remote meeting just “a remote.” A remote is what you lose in your couch cushions. – mxyzplk Nov 19 '20 at 16:27
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I think the rule "if it's not considered legit in a physical office, than it's not considered legit in an online meeting" is not a good or logical rule, because it just are two very different settings. Some things are a major nuisance to others in a physical meeting while they are not in an online meeting. As Laurent S points out, smoking is a good example of this because the smoke and smell will not bother other participants in an online meeting. Other examples you give like visible shaving, cutting nails, dental flossing because it is (generally) more considered the sight that is distasteful.

So I think until we all have a gizmo on our desks that transports smells, it is okay to smoke, be smelly or fart while muted in an online meeting. However doing visibly distasteful things will always be a no-no during an online meeting. Unless the cameras are turned off off-course in which case only audible distasteful things will be forbidden.

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    To some people, smoking is visibly distasteful! Same with eating, especially if you're the messy type. – Charanor Nov 19 '20 at 9:32
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    @Charanor: To some people, a woman having her hair visible is distasteful too. But rules and regulations are not based solely on the premise of "someone might not like it", so this alone should not be your guiding measure. There are significantly more considerations than what you've mentioned. – Flater Nov 19 '20 at 13:38
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    There is a question on this site about someone smoking in an online meeting and subsequently being reprimanded by HR. Evidently, it is at least punishable by HR. – mishan Nov 19 '20 at 16:37
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    Link to the mentioned question here: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/158641/… – mishan Nov 19 '20 at 16:42
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Preliminary Note: depending on the etiquette (company/region), rules defined in your working contract or even legal rules applying in your region, what is appropriate can vary greatly. I will then try to focus on the differences between office setup and video call setup, all other things being equal so focusing on that line:

Can you say that if it's not considered legit in a physical office, than it's not considered legit in an online meeting?

My answer would be that it's not that simple.

Some behaviors are inappropriate in an office because of common courtesy for reasons that are not relevant on video (muted)

  • Smoking: no smell, so second-hand smoking
  • eating at your desk: No smell, no breadcrumbs, no leftovers or dirty dishes rotting in the office
  • farting: do I need to explain why?

Some things are still considered gross even if the practical reasons are not relevant in video call

Clipping your nails, shaving, flossing, all will leave bits of you in the office, or worse throw bits of you at me. I couldn't care less though if these bits of you are all over the place in your house, on your monitor, in your keyboard... So technically this shouldn't be an issue. Still, it may be considered gross as personal hygiene is usually considered a rather private matter.

Some behaviors would probably be unprofessional in a normal work from home setup, but the current COVID-situation is NOT normal

I'm for example more understanding if a colleague has to leave for 2 minutes to open to a delivery guy several times a day, or go get something out of the oven, or has to deal with a kid, ... We all do for the best in the current COVID situation, everybody needs to show some flexibility.

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    +1. I often have to get the door or get something out of the over or deal with a child... and no one cares. – matt freake Nov 19 '20 at 14:46
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    +1 because this is the only answer that really categorizes things into 1) not at the office, but probably okay on video; 2) no personal hygiene activities in the office or on video; 3) not normally okay on video but these are not normal times. – shoover Nov 19 '20 at 15:23
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Can you say that if it's not considered legit in a physical office, than it's not considered legit in an online meeting?

There are parallels that can be drawn between a physical meeting and an actual video conference in regards to acceptable behaviour, but there are still small nuances as the others have mentioned here. But there's definitly a line drawn when it comes to visible behaviour.

Some other examples I can think of: nail painting / dental flossing / cutting nails / shaving / ..

While it would be ok for some - if mic is muted - to burp, let gas, swear or similar, it's definitely not acceptable for most of us if someone would start shaving their beard or doing their make-up while in a video conference.

A good approach to avoid any disturbance and prevent any unacceptable behaviour of the participants is to have a certain rule-set of what is acceptable. In our company we are using tele-confences (audio/video) not only since the current crisis and have a guideline-document handed to our employees about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (also for regular calls). This way, everyone knows how to present themselves in meetings within the company as well with our clients, suppliers etc.

What also strongly discouraged is to show any signs of not being fully engaged in the conference/conversation - that would aslo include:

  • being distracted by other electronic devices (TV, radio, smartphone, ..)
  • to lean the head on the hand
  • looking away from the screen for a long time
  • longer absence than neccessary (i.E. for a visit to the toilet)
  • doing their nails/hair/makeup/taxes
  • being distracted by family-members or the delivery guy ringing the door bell
  • etc., etc.

Basically anything that shows that you are not fully engaged in the conversation or that could be perceived as rude or distasteful - and while there normally is a common understanding in regards to certain workspace-cultures, there are still slightly different perceptions within a group of individuals - hence the guidelines.

And since smoking and eating during conferences is being discussed in the comments and obviously are a controversial points: In our guidlines that would be completely unacceptable.

If a meeting last longer than an hour or two, we have the rule of thumb to have a 5-10 minute break every hour for everyone to visit the bathroom, have a snack, smoke or catch a fresh breath of air - this is also a good practice to avoid fatigue and therefore keep the attention of all participants on a high level.

Guidelines are obviously subject to the regional culture, the operating field of the business and their office-culture in general.

4

If they can't do it in an actual face-to-face meeting it would not be considered appropriate. For example smoking would be a definite no and eating would depend if its common. So yes if it's not considered legit in a physical office, than it's not considered legit in an online meeting.

But it depends on who's enforcing it. If HR doesn't care, and the culture is quite relaxed, then it happens.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 19 '20 at 18:42
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I don’t think there is or can be a hard and fast rule on what is acceptable to do remotely that isn’t acceptable to do in the office (obviously if it’s acceptable at the office it needs to be acceptable remotely).

But there is a soft rule that can be used — would others be unduly distracted or upset if they were to see or hear what you were doing? Are you giving the meeting the attention and respect it deserves from you? As a general rule of thumb, if you feel you can’t share that you did it during the meeting, don’t do it during the meeting.

I’ve been in physical meetings where someone worked on a project during the meeting about the project. I’ve been in physical demo meetings where someone did non-project work. Neither interfered with the meeting or were considered particularly disrespectful and didn’t distract others. They either wanted to be there or needed to be there, but the meeting didn’t need their whole attention all the time. So, how much attention the meeting (and others in it) needs is going to be specific to the meeting and the individual’s in it.

But giving less than that is disrespectful and is inappropriate.

  • +1 This is the answer. Participants shouldn't do anything that would distract others. Although my current covid haircut may cause alarm for my coworkers. – Dave Gremlin Nov 19 '20 at 13:17
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    I do feel that the examples in Para 3, are, unusual counter-examples. People are being fired willy-nilly for poor remote behavior. It's a cliché of our times. – Fattie Nov 19 '20 at 14:30
  • @Fattie: and that might simplify the rule of thumb — if you think you might be fired if your boss found out you were doing it during a meeting, it’s probably inappropriate. – jmoreno Nov 19 '20 at 23:18
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I believe if it's acceptable in the office, it's acceptable at home, and things you wouldn't do in the office should not be done at home in an online meeting.

You should be sat facing the camera listening to whoever is speaking. Maybe you take a sip of water/coffee, write down some notes or whatever, but you shouldn't be doing anything else.

Certain things like your background, family walking by, kids making an appearance can't always be helped but should be avoided if possible to prevent the meeting being interrupted.

Smoking, eating, shaving, flossing, painting nails, online shopping etc... No. these aren't really acceptable in my opinion. That is just common sense. You can wait to do these after the meeting.

Things like this give the impression you aren't listening, and eating or smoking can be off-putting. It depends on company culture, but most people will consider these things a little rude.

In all meetings I've been in, these things haven't really come up. Just use your best judgement.

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This question is very opinion-based. Here's my opinion:

If you are meeting from home, the operative word is not meeting and is instead from home. You are home. You do things that would be permitted if you were at home, because you are at home. If you need to take care of your kids, because they are also at home, then you do that, at home. If you need to wash the dishes, or put away laundry, or eat, you do that, at home.

The line gets drawn at the point at which you are doing one or more of the following things:

  1. You are being disrespectful of others. I can sit on my couch naked and watch tv at home. I wouldn't sit on my couch naked in a work meeting.

  2. You are noticeably detracting from the meeting. You can eat, but nobody wants to hear you, so turn off your mic. You can wash dishes, but running water is loud. Turn off the mic. You can breastfeed your baby, but that's probably not something everyone would be comfortable with, turn off your cam and probably also your mic, or position your baby somewhere that the cam can't catch it (maybe tilt up your cam more than you otherwise would). You can do all of the above things, just take care to not disturb the other meeting participants.

  3. You are able to pay attention to the meeting. You don't want to be the guy who is cooking during a meeting, and then gets called on to say something, and you realize you've missed the last 15 minutes of discussion which was pertaining to your responsibility on the project. That looks like you're not engaged, and the purpose of the meeting is to convey information, so everyone has to be engaged. If you can multitask and still pay attention to the meeting, then go for it, but make sure you're still paying attention to the meeting.

Eating and smoking do not violate the above 3 rules; those are both things you would normally do at home, and are not things that (I believe) would cause any of the above 3 uncomfortable scenarios. So I'd be ok with either of them. Of all the things you mentioned, I think only the hygiene ones (shaving and dental flossing) would be ones I might take issue with, mostly because I'd be unsure if a person doing those things would be engaged in the meeting; also because taking your meeting in the washroom may be uncomfortable for other reasons (or at least it is to me, others may disagree), although my objection would not be a strong one.

  • Did you factor in that the question is about a video meeting? Because I would agree with your examples if it were just voice (or if it at least is assumed okay to switch of the cam), but washing your dishes while being seen IS a distraction in itself if everyone sees you. Visuals do matter, too. Otherwise, yeah, totally fair stance. – Frank Hopkins Nov 20 '20 at 18:12
  • Most video conferencing apps (Zoom, Google Meet, etc) minimize the cameras of users who aren't speaking. If your mic is muted so the app doesn't pick up the sound of the loud running water, your cam should remain minimized to others and should provide minimal distraction. – Ertai87 Nov 20 '20 at 18:21
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    “You can breastfeed your baby, but that's probably not something everyone would be comfortable with” - However, at the office or another setting outside of home, would absolutely be allowed in most regions. At the end of the day, if the baby is hungry, it ain’t going to wait for after the meeting nor should it. – Donald Nov 21 '20 at 18:19
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    @Donald At least in my locale, companies provide private breastfeeding rooms for that; it's not commonly done in the open office. – Ertai87 Nov 21 '20 at 21:44
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    @Ertai87 - Done for the privacy of the mother but certainly not required, even the U.S. has laws to protect the right of the mother in this regard – Donald Nov 21 '20 at 23:56
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You want to maintain an online presence at par with your in-person presence.

Avoid anything that will make you look unprofessional such as:

  • Unprofessional attire such as jeans, T-shirts, sleepwear, or lack of being fully clothed
  • Doing other activities while in the meeting unless excusing yourself first.
  • Anything distracting while on camera Eating, smoking, et cet.
  • Talking to people not on the meeting
  • Answering phone calls unless on mute with the video off (again excuse yourself first)
  • Talking to family.
  • Having the TV or Radio on in the background where it can be seen or heard
  • Family members or pets
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    TBH, I've seen many of these things in meetings I've been in. That doesn't mean they would be considered "professional", but they seem (unfortunately) to be acceptable, as managers in the meetings have allowed it since I've seen these activities in more than one meeting. :( – FreeMan Nov 19 '20 at 16:22
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    @FreeMan as have I. Eventually the ettiquette is going to catch up to the mode, and it's better to avoid these things before they become an issue. I'm sure HR departments everywhere are rapidly formulating online meeting guidelines. Best to be ahead of the game. – Old_Lamplighter Nov 19 '20 at 16:27
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    Define "rapid". It's been 9 months for many people. I know corporations move slowly, but that's really slow. Sadly, my company has announced mandatory WFH until June 2021!! – FreeMan Nov 19 '20 at 16:28
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    @Old_Lamplighter Were you wearing suit and tie also in the office? If so, then keeping wearing it might be a good idea. In other companies, however, you would look overdressed, which is not a good thing either. Wearing a suit when everyone wears T-shirts wouldn't make you look more professional, it would just look out of place. The point is: clothes worn in home office shouldn't be much more casual than clothes typically worn in the office (I agree with you here), but what people wear depends on the company. – lawful_neutral Nov 20 '20 at 23:12
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    @Old_Lamplighter This is why I would replace this point in your otherwise good answer with "Don't wear anything that you wouldn't wear in the office" or something like that, it's more generalized. – lawful_neutral Nov 20 '20 at 23:21
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All of these are utterly unacceptable:

  • smoking
  • eating
  • nail painting
  • holding a baby
  • a child visible in any way
  • anyone whatsoever other than you visible in any way
  • dental flossing
  • cutting nails
  • shaving
  • Starbucks! cups and other snacks visible in any way
  • nursing a baby
  • imperfect backgrounds
  • anything less than a pro (say, $150) mic
  • casual or worse clothing
  • focussing on anything other than the camera/screen
  • tardiness (for meetings, a minute late is late. for remotes literally 1 second late is late)

Drinking office coffee is barely acceptable. (Plain coffee in a business mug.)

I'm starting to understand why some folks say "wow, it's really hard to get a job at the moment" and others say "it is so easy to get a job at the moment".

If you need money to eat, I would encourage to be "beyond professional" in remotes. If you've won the lotto, do whatever you wish.

Being fired for "rubbish remote" is a cliché of this year.

As mentioned before on this list, I've seen about 5 (and counting) folks fired summarily from our various clients, for "pathetic remote skills" this 2020. For example, two for tardiness. One for bizarrely remoting from somewhere they "had to whisper" rather than the home office. The rest for precisely the action alluded to in this question (having kiddies running around in the bg, needing to "just step! away!", and so on).

Understand that remote behavior is more, much more, demanding, formal and exacting, than office behavior.

Everyone knows that in business clothes maketh the man, you can't be too overdressed, l'exactitude est la politesse des rois, formality, eagerness and manners never hurt anyone, and so on.

These things are more true in the remote world.

"Can you say that if it's not considered legit in a physical office then it's not considered legit in an online meeting?"

No, today one has to be much more business-like and tight in remotes, than, in an office setting.

It's a cliché of 2020 that people are getting summarily fired for slop remote.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 20 '20 at 15:36
  • Which country or culture is this answer relevant to? It seems much harsher than anywhere I'd feel at home. – OmarL Dec 31 '20 at 16:17

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