There’s a lot of tedious someone-has-to-do-it work that comes with owning your own business, but hopping onto a Zoom call with a client is pure pleasure. After all, I started Alchemy + Aim to give people and their messages websites that allow them to have a bigger impact, so to me, there’s nothing better than seeing them unravel their greatness in real time.
Unless I’m shut out from seeing them. Literally.
It doesn’t happen often. My clients are vibrant, thoughtful, and ready to tackle tough issues, face-to-face. They tend to welcome the idea of “meeting up,” even if we’re slightly pixelated versions of ourselves. So when a new client asked to bring her long-time tech support guy onto the call with us, I was totally on board. After all, the better the whole team communicates, the better results we get for our clients. And given this guy had been a long-time member of her team, why wouldn’t I welcome his insight into her business?
A few minutes into the call, I knew something was off. While my client and I were on video, this guy’s screen was black. No avatar, no photo, and certainly no video. Now, technology doesn’t always work the way we want it to, so I’m pretty forgiving. But as the three of us chatted, I started to feel uneasy. This tech guy and I had different approaches to building websites and while I was trying to understand his perspective, it felt strange being spoken to and seen, but having no visual on my end of the conversation. Here we were, discussing how we could work together to elevate our client’s presence online, yet this guy wasn’t presenting himself to us. The situation became more clear when I found out that in all the years of working together, he’d never shown his face on a video call or elsewhere. He had remained unseen, and I felt an imbalance of power during our call.
Let’s be honest: There’s always been a power dynamic at play between men and women in the workplace. But with COVID-19 changing how we work, possibly forever, this dynamic is on full display (literally and figuratively). More and more, women are showing up at their computers determined, yet exhausted. They’re hopping out of a last-minute shower and straight into a team meeting, wet hair and all, as they try to puzzle through their place in this new work-life system. Women are showing up.
So what about the men?
Countless studies have already shown that work meetings are littered with inequities. Add to that a lagging internet connection and lack on nonverbal cues—which women thrive on reading to help communicate their points—and we all have a micro disaster on our hands. It’s hard enough for women to chime into a meeting, even when men and other leaders are visible on the screen. But when someone actually shuts down their screen—not even an avatar or photo to be found—the power is shifted into their favor even more.
Make no mistake about it: Shutting off your screen is a power grab. It’s an attempt to maintain control while others display their ideas, identity, and vulnerabilities.
With a second wave of COVID predicted for the fall, realistically, we’re not getting out of this Zoomified world anytime soon (and for those of us who work remotely, this is just our way of life). People will continue to find ways to stay in control, and others will continue to show up as they are. So as working women, how do we tip the power dynamics back into our favor, especially when a lot of the nonverbal language we rely on is no longer available?
First, the expectation that video will be on needs to be set. If you’re in a position to set it, do so by letting everyone know at the start of the meeting to turn on those screens. I certainly don’t take every call as a video call, but if the person I’m speaking to opts to turn their screen on, I turn mine on as well, so we’re both seen and showing up in the same way. If you aren’t in a position to determine how a call is held, consider putting in a request with your boss or client before the next session.
And if that’s not possible? Use your voice to call people out. You don’t have to be harsh about it, but it’s important to help people understand that technology works best when it’s used as it was intended—for connection and collaboration. Technology should make us better, and the only way we get better is by showing up.
All the way.