Show Yourself: How The Age of Zoom Puts Power Dynamics Front and Center

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. 

Don’t Always Listen to the Experts

Two or three years ago (I honestly can’t recall how long ago it was), I was working with a bookkeeper for my business who was great and seemed as dedicated to my business as I was. Most importantly, she knew how to sort through the mess of finances for a growing company. I trusted her, I leaned on her. When it came time to renew our contract together, the monthly fee she presented me with was particularly high for what I understood a bookkeeper did. Had I seen the value for my business, I would have invested.

At an earlier point in our working relationship, this bookkeeper had mentioned Profit First to me, and said she was excited to implement it with my business. I was curious and willing to learn more. But a year passed and when we found ourselves renegotiating her contract, I brought up Profit First and asked why she had never used it with my business.

Her response? Because my business didn’t need it.

I can’t tell you how much I regret listening to her in that moment.

At the time, business was on a high! It was healthy and I was doing just fine. Why would I ever need to worry?

As any entrepreneur or meteorologist can tell you, you cannot avoid rainy days — and sometimes those rainy days become rainy seasons.

I didn’t have the tools of Profit First to help me as my business grew. And so I found myself in a difficult financial situation, making more money than I ever had in the business but having so little profit that I couldn’t even give myself a raise (again). And yes, technically business has grown, but that growth may not be sustainable.

When I get the sense something isn’t quite right in my business, I look back to the foundations: what do we do, who is on this team, how we operate. And clearly, it’s time to re-establish the financial foundation for my company with Profit First. First step: open the bank accounts.

And a reminder: Don’t always trust the “experts”. Explore for yourself. Talk to multiple people. Find the people who truly have expertise to share with you. And make sure you have the right foundations in place.

Thank you to all my friends and connections who recommended I read Profit First, and for those fellow entrepreneurs who run service-based businesses who helped me truly see how this can work for me.

See All the Solutions

One of the joys of being a business owner is that I’m often presented with complex problems, typically involving people but sometimes related to the way my business has been structured. The challenge I’ve given myself in these situations is to find all the solutions.

So often we only find the two most obvious “solutions” and force ourselves to choose one, even if neither is attractive. But if we found a third option or fourth option or even fifth?

We’re terribly stuck in the single-winner mindset. I win, you lose. Or you win, I lose. We forget that there are win-wins that are possible.

It definitely takes some creativity and dedicated time set aside to brainstorm. The other options may not be traditional solutions, but they may be better, more interesting choices, which push us further into evolution rather than keep us stuck in false dichotomies.

I’m in that place with my business right now: do I continue to scale even with the problems it’s creating, or do I return to the pre-scaled business structure I had?

Neither is appealing. Instead, I’m looking for a different way to do things, a new model of business that puts people first, that can adapt and grow, that can build wealth for everyone involved – our team, our clients, the world.

It isn’t easy, but success is only success if you love what you’ve created.

Ways Not to Measure Success

There are a lot of metrics in business, rather seductive ones that scream success from an external point of view: revenue, team size, number of clients. We live in an age where the hustle and excessively long work days are parts of the glamour of business: you’re simply so busy you don’t have time to eat or sleep or remember what it’s like to stop and just be — you have to keep going, climbing your metaphorical mountain of success so you can come out on top.

What have we done to ourselves?

The early phases of business have different measures of success than a scaled business has. And the reality is, if we’re not asking ourselves regularly what our own measures of success are we’ll find ourselves dissatisfied and burnt out, with a business that may look like a success to the rest of the world but feels like a failure to us.

So where do we start?

Profit over revenue. If you’re not keeping the money you make, does it really matter how much you make?

Team culture over team size. Bigger is not always better. Sometimes it’s more complex. Sometimes you end up with the wrong team members. But if you have a group that trusts each other and works well together, that’s gold.

Client fit over number of clients. How much easier would life be if you had the right clients, ones that fit your philosophy and culture? Would you really need tons of them, or would it be more fun to go deep with a smaller group than shallow with many? Think about that impact.

What’s really interesting to me now is what new metrics I can create for my business, like play and deep collaboration with clients, or the number of pro bono projects we can tackle in a year. Those are not all worked out perfectly yet, but we’re experimenting with what feels good.

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Credits

Jane Reaction

(logo and original branding) is a graphic design and art director who works with with small businesses and creative entrepreneurs, creating cohesive and interesting brands and websites.

Carrie Coleman

(photography) is a wedding photographer, whose goal is to capture the visual expression of a couple's love through timeless, organic images. She is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.