Do webcams matter?


“We have webcams, but we never use them.” Does this sound like something you or your team would say? But more and more companies are adopting tools like Microsoft Lync, WebEx or GoToMeeting that have easy-to-use webcam functionality. So the question now is: do you use your cameras or not. And if not, why not?

Sometimes people have very good reasons for not using their tools. But most often the reasons aren’t very good at all. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that using a simple webcam (we’ll discuss full-blown video conferencing another time) can add value or be a pain in the neck.

First, let’s start with why people often don’t use these tools. Some of the reasons are valid, some are left over from an earlier generation of technology, others are just nonsense:

Our people don’t have webcams. Well, if they have a four year-old laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, yes they do. If they have twenty bucks, they can get one from a store or online. The availability of cameras isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any barrier.

Our people aren’t comfortable using them. Ask them how they use their spare time. Do they have grandchildren in another state? They’re Skyping like crazy on the weekend. Are they under 40? Then this is probably a blatant falsehood. And how much training does it really take?

I don’t have the proper setup. Do you have a webcam? Can you shut the curtains behind you? Can your face be seen? That’s all you need for most day to day work. This doesn’t apply if you’re facing external customers and have to create a great impression, but does Bob in accounting care that your home office has a picture of your cat on the wall?

It’s a security issue. It probably isn’t, unless you’re talking about the security of your ego. Still, if it’s a legitimate issue, it is what it is.

Our VPN is a nightmare. This, sadly, is legitimate. Webcams do suck up a fair amount of bandwidth, and if you have multiple people joining a webmeeting from remote locations, dialed in through an ancient and cranky Virtual Private Network, it might create problems. However, even slow VPNs tend to be okay for low resolution, one-on-one webcams.

Sure, when using a tool is more trouble than it’s worth, or it becomes a barrier to actually getting productive work done, don’t use it. But make sure the concerns are legitimate.

I hate the way I look on camera. We have a winner. The biggest resistance to using webcams is people don’t like the way they look on camera. It takes a couple of times before you stop worrying about it. For most work, we are looking for low resolution contact, not TV-worthy quality. Hey, I know how you feel. I have a “no webcams before 6 AM” policy with my overseas customers. Common sense applies.

So why should people use webcams?

Visual contact is the fastest way to build trust. Science tells us that trust, communication and productivity increase when people have good working relationships, and a lot of that relationship building is based on visual communication. When you put a face to a name, or can read body language in conjunction with audio, we respond more positively.

Richer communication is better communication. Speaking on the telephone is fine, but once people have experienced combining audio and visual input, they realize the importance of getting all the information they can, in as many ways as possible.

You learn about people’s environment. When you have some people teleworking, others in cushy offices and some at cubicles, it’s easy not to know how individuals function. When you can see their environment, you develop a little empathy for how that person works.

It’s really not a big deal. Once you’ve used it a couple of times, many of the objections tend to go away. In fact, you can create unnecessary drama when you only insist on using webcams for certain occasions. I have a friend who learned the hard way that “I’d like you to use your webcam on Wednesday” meant there was probably bad news coming. If this is just the way you work, people stop assigning meaning to it that isn’t there.

The fact is, webcams can be a powerful way to reduce the challenges remote teams face in learning each other’s work styles and strengths. They can also be a bit of a pain in the neck. If you don’t try them, you won’t know, and if you don’t use them regularly, they’ll always seem like more of a challenge than they really are.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.