Once upon a time — literally a few weeks ago — you had to show your intelligence in the office by deploying polysyllabic words, or by speaking louder and louder until you drowned out others, or they gave up (whichever came first). You may remember that certain social demographics (and genders) display this type of behaviour better than others.
But now that this work happens through the fish-eye camera of your laptop, in Zoom after Zoom after Zoom, the goalposts have moved.
Now it is less about what you say than what others can see in the background behind you while you’re saying it — largely because the audio went wibbly when you made your point.
This change is, if not a universal leveller, then at least an opportunity to change the rules of owning a room.
Set the scene
Pitching your “workstation” in front of a pile of laundry/Deliveroo detritus/your booze stockpile semaphores chaos. That six-pack of blue WKDs is not any more “ironic” at a 9am Zoom conference than it is in real life. Top line: remove all signifiers of your human weaknesses from shot.
Now, start adding in signifiers of your superiority. This is a details game. It would be ideal if you have any of the following to hand: a Roman bust, a tapestry, a harp, an easel propping up a promising canvas.
If not, setting up your desk in front of a carefully curated bookshelf will do. By my estimate — check with a test run — about 12 books will be in shot. Ensure they give the impression of a well-rounded reader; someone curious and ambitious, sensitive yet rigorous, someone who rides that zeitgeist (has the new Hilary Mantel) but simultaneously dabbles in the esoteric (an Olga Tokarczuk, perhaps, or anything German and not translated).
For the avoidance of doubt, Freakonomics should not make the cut.
Other top props include posters (framed) from galleries — MoMA, the Getty, something obscure with a cedilla — and a secondary bookshelf, which emphasises that your collection is so bounteous it can hardly be contained.
See the light
You are already haunted by your Zoom avatar: a person who is to all intents and purposes you, but who feels like a stranger. Does your nose always do that when you concentrate? Did you always have a pronounced overbite? It is uncanny; both you and not you.
Stay calm: adequate lighting conceals many sins. Also, that energy-saving bulb swinging from the ceiling does not scream “CEO in the making”.
Open the curtains (natural light equals professional light), and remember: soft lighting makes it feel like you are trying to date everyone on the call. Candles — even expensive ones — are creepy.
Whether you now WFH with your three children, are hutching up with four housemates, or it’s you and your other half forever (and ever), try to separate church and state. Having your boyfriend/toddler/housemate wander through in PJs mid-call will undermine your professionalism so much that even a harp solo (see above) will not repair your rep.
If possible, barricade the doors, or change their alarm time so that they don’t get up until your morning meeting is over.