I was on a video call with someone I admire tremendously a few weeks back but found myself unable to focus on the subject matter at hand. Instead, I kept squinting behind him to try and figure out what the splotch was on the wall behind him. Was it abstract art, a la Jackson Pollock or my colleague’s two-year-old daughter? Or maybe it was black mold? Whatever it was, it was extremely distracting. I was then was further distracted wondering if I should tell him that the blotch behind him looked like black mold, just in case it was black mold or to help him avoid a future meeting in which someone zones out and focuses on his wall instead of his words.
“I’ve heard nightmare stories of people doing important meetings, including interviews, from bed!” shared presentation coach and speaker Rob Biesenbach, “So, yes. It’s important to pay attention to your setting and background to make sure it’s as professional as possible.” Biesenbach offered a really easy approach “Since everyone is broadcasting from home these days, from TV correspondents to late-night hosts, take a look at what they’re doing. A few items on a shelf, a plant or flower arrangement, a family photo or two — keep it simple and tasteful. Not too cluttered.”
Here’s the thing, most of us are still working at home and that means that whether or not we choose to, we’re inviting total strangers into our homes on a daily basis. And they judge us not only on the way we present ourselves but on what our background view tells them about us as well. Don’t believe me? Have a look at @ratemyskyperoom on Twitter where they rate everything from background décor to how many of your own books you have displayed.
Related: 37 tips from design experts to make your small space seem bigger
We gathered some tips on how to make your home office (or couch area) look better before your next video call.
Don’t give them too much to look at
I’ve noticed a lot of people set up their cameras so the rest of us can see the entire room- if not house. That’s not such a great idea according to Will Rose, Chief Communications Officer at Harqen.AI – an on-demand remote interviewing platform. In fact, for video interviews, Rose recommends “having the camera focus on your mid-torso up to just above your head, which does not leave a lot of room to see the background.”
Make it interesting
If you do have a visible background, choose one or two interesting details that show you’re not a drone and in a pinch, can act as a conversation starter. But don’t overdo it. “Sitting in front of a wall with a large number of photos is not only distracting,” Rose said, “but can also cause reflections that make it hard to see. Similarly, a window in the background creates a backlighting effect that poses challenges in video interviews.” It’s also distracting and puts the focus on things and not you.
Avoid the kitchen
While newscasters (or Ryan Seacrest) seem to have huge gorgeous kitchens, unless you’re a celebrity chef, try not to take a meeting there. As Rose explains, “If you are sitting in your living room or kitchen with another big room behind you, I’ve found that is often the most distracting because it gives someone the most to look at aside from the person being interviewed.” And let’s not even discuss the dirty breakfast dishes visible in the frame or as Rose puts it “A messy kitchen in the background may lead someone to believe you are disorganized or unprofessional, even if that is not the case.”
Don’t sit someplace busy
While everyone loves a cute YouTube video of a baby crawling in the background, the reality is that it’s incredibly distracting during important negotiations. “I like to avoid having anything that could be distracting to others during a video call like a busy kitchen with roommates or hallway with people passing through,” shared Marissa Salazar, Microsoft Teams Product Marketing Manager
Your background says a lot about you
“Your interview background can offer a lot of information about your personality without you realizing it. The artwork you may have on the wall can shed light on your interests which can offer a sense of your personality. If you have one of two pieces of art up, it can reveal that you are creative, whereas a plain white wall won’t communicate that,” according to Rose.
Think twice before choosing a background
“Not everyone’s living situation allows for much in the way of set dressing, so virtual backgrounds can be a good option,” offered Biesenbach. He said that two things are critical. “First, choose something professional, like bookshelves or an office setting, instead of a tropical beach. Second, you have to have a green screen behind you to make a virtual background work. Even tacking up a green sheet or fabric behind you will make a huge difference in quality and professionalism.”
Don’t overdo it
“Whenever it’s feasible, I prefer a natural background over virtual,” Biesenbach said. “It humanizes the candidate and gives a glimpse of who you are. Think of it as one more opportunity to tell your story – just like a resume, a LinkedIn profile, or your answers to interview questions. Can you showcase a major accomplishment with an award or trophy? Or a hobby with a framed photo of you landing a fish or summiting a mountain? Or a key interest with a favorite book or two? Even a picture of your family or pet helps people connect with you.”
Keep it organized
Whether or not your background is organized can also give an impression of your work style. Think of your background like a cover letter – you want it to tell the right story, so remove anything that doesn’t communicate the message you want the interviewer to walk away with after the call.
Make the lighting matter
“Lighting can make a big difference in how your background looks,” Rose explained. You should test it out before joining a video interview. Also, “If you can, make sure the light sources are in front of you rather than behind you so everything looks clear on the screen.”
Your furniture matters
Don’t sit on an exercise ball or wobbly chair when you’re on a video call since you’ll be distracting. Allform makes customizable armchairs and sofas if you want something uniquely you. Or you could just order a predesigned office: Tailored Living, has a new line of Pre-Designed Home Office Sets that takes the guesswork out of creating a perfect home workspace.
Use technology to help you out when possible
You never want to overdo filter functions since you’ll end up looking comical instead of professional, but before your next video call check out any available filters or backgrounds. “We recently announced video filters in Teams,” Salazar shared. That means you can have “the ability to subtly adjust the lighting levels and soften the focus of the camera during important calls.” Salazar also offered a tip if your space isn’t perfect. “I also love using Background Blur or a customized background to help hide a messy space behind me and improve the effectiveness of meetings by limiting distractions.”
Add some plants
You don’t need a complete room makeover to create a space that works on video calls. “Overall we are seeing more folks turn to houseplants as decor items because they are affordable, attractive and are a changing piece in décor,” said Mike Rimland, Director of Research and Development for Houseplants AKA Plant Hunter, Costa Farms. This works “on two fronts – one that you can swap the pot out and give plants a whole different look and two because as plants grow, they take on a whole character as they gain in size.” Besides, plants might just help you work more efficiently. Rimland explained that “there is also NASA scientific data showing plants can remove harmful VOCs (Volatile organic compounds) from the air, so they are beautiful and good for us.” And in case you think you’ve been seeing more houseplants than ever, you are. “People started collecting houseplants when Instagram took off and now, they are using houseplants as a backdrop for Zoom and Teams meetings, Rimland said. To add depth and color to your Zoom background he said “large-leafed plants like Monstera, fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) and peace lily (Spathiphyllum ’Sensation”) are ideal. These varieties are super stunning, and many are super-efficient at pulling chemicals out of the air. It’s a trend not going away anytime soon.”
Make a subtle statement
If you want to make a statement without spelling it out (or potentially allowing your meeting to descend into a fight about politics) consider artwork that gets your message across. Rifle Paper Company doesn’t only create vivid floral desk accessories, they also have fabulous wallpapers and this print with a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. Or you can always casually display a copy of Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, which documents interior designer Michael S. Smith‘s collaboration with President Barack Obama and First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.
Make your own art
Don’t have time to buy the perfect background? Create your own by printing out some of your favorite images from life-changing trips or even past corporate retreats. Kodak Step Instant Print Digital Camera even has a photo booth mode if you want to add a bit of flair to your wall. Show off your crafty side by creating original punch needle art. Vibrant Punch Needle Décor: Adorn Your Home with Colorful Florals and Geometric Patterns makes it easy (and extremely affordable) for even beginners to create a one of a kind design. Or you could go the green is beautiful route and decorate with projects inspired by Houseplant Party: Fun projects & growing tips for epic indoor plants by Lisa Steinkopf, which also has tips on keeping your plants beautiful and healthy.