March 17, 2020 / 9:46 PM / in 21 days

Cats, PJs, alien eyes unwelcome as work video calling boom prompts new etiquette

(This March 17 story corrects stock symbol of Zoom to ZM.O, not ZOOM.PK in the last paragraph)

A computer screen shows a technical glitch during a video conferencing session with Impossible Foods Vice-President of Communications Jennifer Appelgren on Zoom in Redwood City, California, U.S. March 13, 2020. Impossible Foods/Handout via REUTERS

By Jane Lanhee Lee and Paresh Dave

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - Andre Hilden, a data architecture consultant in Oakland, California, missed a memo from his company last week requiring employees to use video conferencing for all meetings while working from home.

“I wasn’t showered. I wasn’t shaved. I was dressed, fortunately. And my cat was on top of me,” Hilden said. He later saw new rules set out in the memo banned pets at the virtual meetings. 

With large swaths of employees in the U.S. starting to work from home to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, some companies are encouraging, or even requiring, employees to go on camera. It’s a way to stay connected, and maybe, for some, a way to make sure employees at least look focused on work. 

Justin Uberti, the Google software developer who helped develop the technology standard for web video chat, said on Twitter on Monday that it would be the biggest day for “video conferencing in the history of Earth. By a long shot.”

But the boom is catching some off guard as they grapple with etiquette.

Hilden’s Silicon Valley clients that day were understanding about his feline companion as many bring their pets to their real offices. But Hilden said his company serves many clients in the Midwest where business norms are stricter and pets on a video call could be viewed as inappropriate.

Venture capitalist David Wu, from Maveron, said he dresses to make a good impression even on video calls. “But that can be different depending on the audience,” he said. Entrepreneurs see him in a T-shirt while investors will probably see a dress shirt. “But always with sweatpants these days.” 

At Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, principal Katherine Caputo said enforcing the school dress code via video conference helps keep students focused, even if they are pairing sanctioned tops with pajama bottoms. “I’m not going to enforce something I can’t see.” A standard background, with school logo, helps cut distraction. 

Ginger Rowe, the owner of clothing store Time Out Clothing in Los Gatos, California, home to Netflix corporate headquarters, is using the #workfromhome hashtag to market business casual outfits on Instagram. Rowe said she was looking for creative ways to help her survive the hardest time she has experienced since she opened shop 26 years ago.

Unfortunately for Impossible Foods executive Jessica Appelgren, the blades of grass in her backdrop during her team’s call via video conferencing app Zoom last week did not stay in the background as her computer could not handle the function. “You could see the backdrop through my eyes,” said Appelgren, vice president of communications. “I just looked like an alien.”

Reporting By Jane Lanhee Lee and Paresh Dave in Oakland. Editing By Greg Mitchell and Alistair Bell

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