Camera On or Off? A Guide to Zoom Etiquette

6 min read • Jun 23, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

After your 5th (or 6th, or 7th) Zoom meeting of the day, you may feel like you’re just talking to yourself, especially when there’s a mix of people on calls with cameras on and off.

While video conferencing tools like Zoom make it much easier to collaborate with coworkers remotely, it can also lead to “Zoom fatigue,” which refers to the mental and physical exhaustion you feel after taking a video call. That’s because your brain has to work harder to process information with video, from facial expressions, time lags, and the general feeling of being “on” for hours at a time without a rest.

“It’s similar to what we tend to think of as exhaustion or burnout,” Krystal Jagoo, MSW, RSW, told Healthline. “Increased cognitive demands of video conferencing communication [means] folx need to create the illusion of eye contact while also mentally processing their verbal communication.”

With so much Zoom fatigue, would it be better to keep cameras off? 

Why You Should Keep Cameras Off

For a growing number of people, the answer is yes.

“In person, we are able to use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at others in the room. On a video call, because we are all sitting in different homes, if we turn to look out the window, we worry it might seem like we’re not paying attention,” writes Liz Fosselien for Harvard Business Review. “Not to mention, most of us are also staring at a small window of ourselves, making us hyper-aware of every wrinkle, expression, and how it might be interpreted. Without the visual breaks we need to refocus, our brains grow fatigued.”

Turning cameras off is a simple but effective way to reduce Zoom fatigue, but it also takes the pressure off on appearance—both in terms of looking engaged but also keeping a squeaky-clean background, worrying over dogs or housemates strolling through the frame, and personal appearance.

An ongoing meme speaks to this anxiety. What started as a joke account rating celebrity Zoom backgrounds now has over 400,000 followers on Twitter, adding to the idea that everything has to be “perfect” and eliminating boundaries between work and home.

But that’s not the only reason. Turning off your camera can actually help the environment, too. Keeping cameras off can reduce the carbon footprint of virtual meetings by up to 96%. That’s because streaming high-definition content requires significant data processing, which uses electricity and other forms of energy.

One hour of videoconferencing emits 150–1000 grams of carbon dioxide and requires up to 12 liters of water. While this is still better than carbon emissions from gasoline, which emits about 8,887 grams in the same timeframe, it’s not nothing.

“The internet’s carbon footprint had already been increasing before COVID-19 lockdowns, accounting for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the water and land footprints of internet infrastructure have largely been overlooked in studies of how internet use impacts the environment,” Yale senior fellow Kaveh Madani shared in a press release. “Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint.”

Why You Should Keep Cameras On

Not everyone is in camp camera-off for exactly the same reasons why we all jumped on Zoom in the first place: keeping cameras on makes you feel more connected to the person you’re talking with. 

“Turn the focus back to what you are saying and how you are saying it. Your message and how you are delivering it will take the pressure off your appearance and allow you to be present on camera,” writes public speaking coach Vanessa Wasche for Fast Company. “Most people are more comfortable without the camera, but you can use this to your advantage.”

If you’re giving a presentation, working through a tough problem, or simply want to feel more present in a meeting, it’s best to turn your camera on if you want to get your message across more clearly. Cameras on is the best approximation we have for in-person meetings, especially the nonverbal cues like hand gestures, smiles, and nodding. 

For others, keeping cameras off feels rude or inappropriate.

“Most times, when people turn off their video options in a Zoom meeting, it is because they are doing something else while the meeting is going on. Or because something else is wrong; either they are not appropriately dressed, or they are in the wrong environment, or are not adequately prepared for the meeting,” writes communications expert Jaime Abbott. “[It feels like you’re not prioritizing] the other participants in the meeting.”

So, What to Do?

Your colleagues may be completely burned out on video conferencing, and that’s OK. Whether you’re planning a hybrid approach or a full return-to-work plan, it’s important to get a pulse check on your teammates or direct reports and figure out what’s best for them.

If you’re not sure whether to keep cameras on or off, try:

    • Determine ahead of time whether the meeting needs to be a Zoom (for example, for a strategic or brainstorming meeting) or if a phone call will suffice (for status updates, all-hands, or 1:1s).
    • Schedule breaks from video calls for yourself or implementing a policy with calls ending on the :45 or :50 as the norm, rather than the full hour.
    • Encourage standard backgrounds or blurring features for employees to prevent background-gawking or pressure. 
    • Keep virtual meetings smaller. The more people on the call, the more pressure. Think mindfully about who will best contribute to the discussion and if everyone needs to be there.
  • Set boundaries. If you need to turn your camera off, do so. And make sure your team feels the same.

Whether you turn your camera on or off, the most important thing is to stay mindful of yourself and others. While it may seem like you’ve been Zooming for years, it’s still relatively new for most people—and like any new technology, our norms and etiquette will evolve.

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.