Some Distant Staff Are Nervous About Their Video Backdrops

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Some Remote Workers Are Worried About Their Video Backdrops

“I don’t like how they’re dictating what my home life looks like,” she said. “If my work isn’t suffering, why do you care what my office looks like?”

For many office workers, the video screen performs like a Room Rater-worthy display, with expert lighting and a curated backdrop. It’s become a palatable trade-off: If you can adapt to the technology, you may never again have to buy an Ann Taylor dress and hop on the subway at rush hour wearing heels.

But adapting can be hard work. Onyx Johnson, who runs a management consultancy in New York, moved to a whole new apartment in search of the perfect backdrop. He found it at One Manhattan Square, a luxury condo on the Lower East Side with amazing views, and video-worthy common areas like a billiard room, a wine cellar and a library.

“I needed to be someplace that would inspire me,” Mr. Johnson, 49, told me, sitting in his living room, a bank of windows and an enormous elephant ear plant behind him. Now, no matter where he sits, he has an instant conversation piece, while betraying little about his private life.

As remote work hardens into a way of life, those video backdrops are taking on unintended meanings. Patrick Ward finally perfected his office setup, after moving at the end of 2021 with his girlfriend from a cramped West Hollywood studio to an airy two-bedroom in nearby Culver City. But now that he no longer takes video calls in a closet, he has begun to wonder if his new office, situated in a dedicated bedroom with excellent audio and lighting, somehow makes him look worse.

Mr. Ward, 28, works for Rootstrap, a software development company, and some of his colleagues live in other countries, like Uruguay, without the option to work remotely. When he hops on calls with them, he’s acutely aware of the inequity. “I want to minimize as much as possible that feeling of, ‘Oh Patrick is just living it up and meanwhile we’re all stuck in the one office,’” he said.

So he modifies his behavior depending on who’s on the other end of the call. If he’s chatting with members of his own team, he’ll wander around his apartment, getting up to make a cup of coffee or a sandwich, clutching his phone to stay onscreen. But if he’s talking to other teams, he sits at his desk, an austere white wall behind him.

And if his co-workers can’t see anything about where he actually is, or what he’s doing, they can’t judge it, either.

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