Remember the days of going into the office? Remember that process of getting ready for work? I remember it well. I would wake up, go for a run, and the have some breakfast and take a shower.

Then I would get dressed. I would put on a crisp dress shirt with a matching tie. My trousers were well pressed, and my shoes completed (and hopefully complimented) the outfit. I wanted to make a good impression at work, so I put a little time and effort into making sure that I would be presenting myself well.

Now that we are working at home, our processes have changed. I think I am sleeping a little bit later these days, and my dress shirt and tie have turned into a black t-shirt and blue jeans. I still want to present myself well, but I find myself working to make that good first impression in different ways.

Most of the impressions I make these days are on Zoom, and although people can only usually see me from just about my shoulders to just above the top of my head, I still want to make a good impression.

In addition to making sure my office is well lit and free of extraneous noises, I also think about what is on the wall behind me. I don’t use a virtual background, if only because I don’t think that technology is fully matured yet. I find those backgrounds to be blurry and distracting, and I often find myself wondering where the person really is, and what don’t they really want me to see?

I like to have my surroundings inform the people I am meeting with a little bit about myself. That may not be the best approach, but I have found it to be helpful. Some people call in to Zoom in front of nothing but a blank white wall, ensuring the focus is on them and what they are saying rather than on other items in the background.

Some people call into Zoom with a bookcase full of books behind them. Sometimes, the books are dusty and old, and they tell an interesting life story. Or, the books may have been recently read, and can serve as good conversation starters on a work call. Sporadic readers who want to appear as well-read (maybe, better-read than they actually are), can also buy books by the foot, so that books on the shelf behind them are all matching in color, subject or theme.

Sometimes, people just call into Zoom from whatever chaotic, busy living room, festooned with toys, remote controls and laundry waiting to be folded they need to call in from because it is they only space they have. Rather than indicating a lack of concern over what a background may say about them, I think this instead shows an admirable level of determination and focus. There is so much happening in this person’s life, and right now, at this moment in time, they are sharply focused on work. Work is what is important, not the laundry, and not the toys on the floor.

What does your Zoom background (real or virtual) say about you? How might a re-consideration of your Zoom background (if or when possible) help to foster strong, sincere and meaningful connections with people you meet with every day.

I was thinking about my Zoom background when on a recent call for work. Honestly, the call was not going very well. The person I was meeting with (who was sitting in front of a plain white wall) seemed rushed, and not very interested in our conversation. He was distant, and disconnected. I was talking to him in hopes of doing business together, but he did not seem very invested in our conversation, or very interested in its outcome.

And then something happened. He looked on the wall behind me and said “Is that Bruce Springsteen? That was one of my first albums!” As if literal ice had just been broken, I was now talking to a different person. He was smiling and laughing, asking questions and telling stories. I walked him through all of the albums on my wall, talking about my connection to the music, and even shared other photos and stories as well.

The call ended with both of us feeling as though we had made a new friend, a new business connection, and that there would be more communication in the future.

When I hung my albums on the wall behind my desk, I did not do so with Zoom in mind, but as it has turned out, those albums have become the ideal meeting background. Often, when I am meeting with someone for the first time, they are likely to ask about the albums. Or they will talk about a specific artist. Or will point to something similar on their wall. Or they use it as an opportunity to begin a deeper conversation about their own musical experiences, or memories, or tastes.

With those albums behind me, there is no denying the fact that I like music. By highlighting albums from artists like The Beatles, Los Lobos and The Band, I may also give an idea of my generation as well. As soon as that camera goes on for the Zoom call, and someone sees those albums behind me, there is no hiding, there is no obfuscation. This is who I am.

Ironically, as I began to write this blog article, an item appeared in the news about an Ohio state senator who was participating in a hearing on Zoom, considering legal penalties for distracted driving. The senator used a virtual background during the meeting, showing a tastefully designed office, with pictures and mementos hanging on the wall behind him. The background was appropriate to the meeting, and did not distract from the matter at hand. But, take a closer look.

He is wearing something across his chest that looks an awful lot like a seatbelt. He looks to his left, then he looks to his right. Obviously, he is driving his car. During a Zoom meeting. During a legal hearing. About distracted driving.

So perhaps the greatest mistake we can make on a Zoom call is not the type of background we use, but rather how we use the background. Be aware of your background, and be aware that whoever you are meeting with is aware of your background as well.

Appear in front of a white wall, or in front of a bookshelf filled with nothing but yellow and blue books, or in front of your messy basement where your kids have just been playing. You are in that space, and as soon as the Zoom meeting starts, there are other people in that space with you.

Who are you? What is your Zoom background saying about you? How can your background help to break down walls, to start conversations, help people understand who you are, and maybe even just a little bit about what is going on in your life? With sincerity. With clarity. With honesty.

Better find your seat. Take a quick look behind you. The Zoom call is about to start.

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