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Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint

What your wall says about you on a video call

Locating the perfect background for a conference call and maintaining social distance from your spouse are just some of the challenges to working from home that the HR team didn’t inform you about

Many of us have now been working from home for the past few weeks. Our offices and social media have educated us extensively on the etiquette of working from home. How to use online platforms, conduct video meetings, ergonomic seating at home, dealing with ambient noise including sounds created by children and pets, and the need to pace yourself well. So we really don’t have much more to say on these serious work from home aspects.

We would like to highlight some of the smaller pain points and pleasures of working at your residence, which have perhaps missed the attention of our overworked human resources team members.

Your setting defines you

In my first video meeting from home, I realized that the wall behind me had a backdrop of two ferocious looking wooden face masks, which I had brought back from a visit to Korea many years ago.

I thought that wasn’t appropriate at all, and certainly not in today’s environment where masks have a very different implication. So for my next Microsoft Teams video call, I prudently moved to another spot at home, but then I suddenly realized that the backdrop behind me now had two tall metal cats on a sideboard, and a wall-hanging with eight Japanese Gods depicted on it. A colleague on the other end told me politely that this was very distracting. On reflection, I agreed with him.

Two thin cats and eight strange Gods is a little too much, measured by any standard. So, eventually, I moved to another location, where there was a plain white wall behind me, with absolutely nothing on it. So far, that’s worked well, and I feel quite professional once again.

Therefore, I would recommend a plain, neutral backdrop, when you do video calls from home. The main lesson here is, be aware of that wall behind you.

Spousal distancing

Physical distancing is very important to keep the coronavirus away, so all of us should certainly stay at home during this critical period, and adhere to the precautions that have been communicated to us by the health authorities clearly. What is equally important, for many of us who are not single, is adequate distancing from our spouse or partner, through our working day. This is because, notwithstanding all the love and affection we may have for each other, it is rather difficult for partners or spouses to be with each other, or cohabit and work in a single room, 24 hours a day.

Your voices begin grating on your nerves, your offices begin spilling into each other, and you cannot rule out occasional emotional outbursts that can upset the steady environment required for work. So, my data scientist wife now uses the study table, and I use the dining table. Or vice versa, on some days. We are comfortably far away from each other during the day, and then we meet again by 6pm, once we have logged off from our respective workplaces. Small homes may make a significant degree of separation difficult to achieve, but then, we are Indians, and we know how to adjust.

Making coffee and tea

One of the first work-from-home truths I realized was that good coffee and tea is essential for our brains to switch on, and work well. Many of our offices serve us excellent freshly brewed coffee, and some offices have gone to the extent of installing exotic fresh bean coffee machines with multiple Italian-style options. Frankly, our offices have spoilt us with all this choice, because when I tried my hand at brewing some fresh coffee at home on my first work-from-home day, it turned out weak and watery. On the second try, it became too milky and syrupy. Eventually, I got myself a nice, big jar of freeze dried instant coffee from the supermarket, diligently followed instructions on the label, and made a reasonably good cup. I have now realized that trying to brew fresh coffee at home is an art, and unless you know it well, and have all the right equipment with you, it is best to stick to making simple instant coffee. Similarly, to make some good tea quickly, between your online calls, the safe and fast option is the teabag. Don’t even try teapots and brewing, unless you have prior experience and at least 15 minutes at hand. The hard truth from this experience is that we take our workplace coffee and tea for granted.

Gossip, grapevine and murmurs

Most of my online calls have been productive, and the whole work-from-home system appears to be settling down well, when viewed through the narrow lens of work output. What I miss, though, is the buzz of office, including the gossip. How do you replicate this at home? Can online chats serve this purpose, even remotely? What is the work-from-home equivalent of the chatter at the water-cooler or in the corridor ? My recommendation here is to relax a little during lunchtime, and call your close office colleagues or friends in the time-tested, old-fashioned way, over telephone. If possible, even try a personal conference chatter call among the three of you, and try to replicate a little bit of the informal office buzz on this call, before you switch back to serious work. It is important to have office fun while working from home.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata Group. He has realized that he snacks far more often when he works from home. So he is now searching for a solution to this new problem.

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