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This is an excerpt from the following academic paper prepared for the web:

Zeavin, H., Baym, N., Bergmann, R., Sarkar, A., Rintel, S., Sellen, A., Powers, D., Bray, S., Barboza-Wilkes, C., Alarcon, A. (2021, October). Managing Boundaries While Working from Home, 1960-Present. Panel presented at AoIR 2021: The 22nd Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers. Virtual Event: AoIR.

More details: Download PDFBibTeXAoIR archivesDOI: 10.5210/spir.v2021i0.12113

Video On/Off: Managing Visibility in Remote Videoconferencing

Nancy Baym, Rachel Bergmann, Sean Rintel, Advait Sarkar, Damian Borowiec, and Abigail Sellen

In 2020, information workers around the world were sent home to a world of pandemic videoconferencing. At the height of the shutdowns, 44% of US workers reported working from home full time (Statista). Within months, the teleconferencing platform Zoom reported a 30-fold increase in daily downloads and more than 300 million daily meeting participants. Microsoft Teams meetings with video in addition to voice increased from 21% to 43% worldwide. With this rise in videoconferencing, both academic and journalistic attention turned to “Zoom fatigue” (Bailenson, 2021; Fosslien & Duffy, 2020; Wiederhold, 2020).

Some of this fatigue may come from blurred boundaries between office and home. Veijola and Jokinen (2008, pp. 170-171) describe the contemporary work environment as “hostessing society,” in which feminized “care, affects, and communication are constitutive aspects of the work performances in new work.” Videoconferencing from home, employees around the world faced an increased demand to allow their colleagues to see them in their private spaces, a sense of “hostessing” more literal than these scholars foresaw. How did people decide how visible to be while working from home? We argue that the work of hostessing helps us understand many of the ways people manage video visibility and gives insight into reasons it can grow so tiring.


We ran a five-month longitudinal diary study of meetings at Microsoft from April-August 2020 (Rintel et al., 2020). 849 employees, representing nearly all regions and organizations within the global company, wrote up to 24 diary entries each about their experiences of remote work, with an emphasis on meetings. They were given eight topics as prompts, such as productivity, interaction, multitasking, and approaches to meetings. 357 participants also responded to polls on topics like spontaneous interaction. Here, we analyze responses to a poll about turning video off, and a subset of diary entries with keywords such as ‘video,’ ‘appearance,’ ‘expression,’ ‘face,’ ‘gesture,’ ‘nonverbal,’ ‘voice,’ and others. After narrowing those entries to those about managing the writer’s own visibility, we had entries from 473 participants. We coded using an iterative process, moving between data and discussion, refining the coding categories, looking both for reasons that participants turned video on and off, and underlying logics that guide that reasoning.


Participants identified technical, cognitive, and social reasons for video use and non-use. Participants described turning video off because of poor network connections, either as a genuine reason to preserve bandwidth, or as a believable excuse when they did not want to be seen. Video choices were also made to manage attention. Participants turned video on to help them focus and turned if off to multitask. Especially in informational meetings, participants describe turning video off to tend to their bodies and homes by moving around, taking a walk, spending time outdoors, or doing chores.

Participants also described three broad categories of social rationales for turning video on or off: self-presentation, managing others’ social needs, and managing the relational needs of the team. These speak to the affective work videoconferencing entails.

Part of the work of hostessing is ensuring that self and home are presentable. Participants described themselves turning video off because of concerns about presentability. Many reported leaving video off because of the state of the space they were in (see Krasnoff, 2020), family interruptions, and feelings of self-consciousness regarding appearance. Participants described intentional strategies to control their presence when they did turn video on. To constrain what is seen, they limited, blurred, and concealed what they did not want shared. At the far end of the spectrum of attitudes towards visibility were participants who embraced the affective labor, making significant efforts to ensure their video presence was well conveyed, including room switches for more natural lighting, proximity to routers for better video quality, tech upgrades for microphone and camera clarity. They put effort into aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, free from clutter and peppered with personal touches that could serve as conversation starters.

Kirsner (2020) and Lerner (2020) have described the sense of speaking into a void on video. Most (64%) respondents to one of our polls said they wished they could see those who turned video off to have more information about their attentiveness and reactions. Participants responded to this by making themselves more visible to serve others’ social needs. They exaggerated their facial and nonverbal responses or performed eye contact by staring into their cameras. Entries describe how, despite suffering in comparison to in-person meetings, video was still the best of the available options for communicating the physical and emotional cues they deeply missed. Many described video as adding social and engagement value, rather than improving work efficiency or output.

Much as a hostess might turn on the music and fine-tune lighting, participants described using video to create particular atmospheres that would benefit the whole of the meeting. People describe using video to create atmospheres of professionalism, focus, enhanced communication, and sociality. One participant described turning their video on to “inspire others” to stay present [P837]; another used it to “break down the barriers” of geographically distributed work [P835].

The extent to which people attended to these concerns varied depending on the meeting context, individual differences, and emergent norms. They described being more likely to keep video off in large, informational meetings, or ones held outside of business hours (such as early mornings or late at night). Far from unified in their perception, people varied in their preferences. In one poll, we asked participants about the relative importance of eleven possible reasons for turning video off – each of these was rated very important by some, and very unimportant by others. Peer and organizational norms were also important: People reported looking to others in the meeting (particularly meeting leaders or customers) for cues on whether to use video.


What appear to be simple decisions about whether to turn video on or off in meetings illustrate complex tensions between self-presentation, organizational norms, and navigating the messiness of living our domestic and work lives in one space.  In some cases, the choice to have video off is obvious: the meeting norms support it, the need to protect oneself is high, and others’ needs are not served by your video presence. In other cases, the choice to have video on is equally clear: others have their videos on, you feel confident in your appearance and your domestic context, and others will be well-served if they can see your reactions.

To turn video off as the context shifts from this first scenario toward the latter is to refuse the hostessing work of assuring your presence is aesthetically pleasing, your space inviting, and others’ needs put first. To turn it on and focus one’s visibility on attending to others as the context shifts from the latter scenario to the first is to heighten the work of that labor.

Whatever the future holds, it seems likely to bring plenty of videoconferencing. The informal, unpaid affective labor that eased social interactions at work will be located in the home and mediated in new ways, giving rise to new kinds of hostessing work and, with that, new kinds of fatigue.


Bailenson, Jeremy N. “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue.” Technology, Mind, and Behavior 2, no. 1 (February 23, 2021). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030.

Fosslien, Liz, and Mollie West Duffy. “How to Combat Zoom Fatigue.” Harvard Business Review, April 29, 2020.

Kirsner, Scott. “Speaking Coaches Offer Tips for Sprucing up Zoom Meetings.” Boston Globe, June 15, 2020. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/15/business/four-public-speaking-coaches-have-tips-sprucing-up-your-zoom-meetings/.

Krasnoff, Barbara. “How to Use Zoom to Hide Your Mess When Working from Home.” The Verge, March 11, 2020. https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/11/21173608/zoom-video-conference-how-to-virtual-background-greenscreen.

Lerner, Adam. “How We Can Fill the Voids of Virtual Rooms (Zoom Et Al.).” Medium (blog), May 11, 2020. https://medium.com/swlh/how-we-can-fill-the-voids-of-virtual-rooms-zoom-et-al-1aa9dd51e866.

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Sherman, Natalie. “Zoom Sees Sales Boom amid Pandemic.” BBC News. June 2, 2020, sec. Business. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52884782.

Veijola, Soile, and Eeva Jokinen. “Towards a Hostessing Society? Mobile Arrangements of Gender and Labour.” NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 16, no. 3 (September 2008): 166–81. https://doi.org/10.1080/08038740802279901.

Wiederhold, Brenda K. “Connecting Through Technology During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic: Avoiding ‘Zoom Fatigue.’” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 23, no. 7 (July 1, 2020): 437–38. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.29188.bkw.

Rintel, Sean, Wong, Priscilla, Sarkar, Advait, & Sellen, Abigail. (2020). Methodology and Participation for 2020 Diary Study of Microsoft Employees Experiences in Remote Meetings During COVID-19. Retrieved January, 20, 2021