Communicating When You Don’t Work from Home – But Live at Work

I confess to frequent cases of Zoom fatigue. I’m not sure if it’s staring at the screen for 9 hours or the equivalent of looking at myself in a mirror all day. Yesterday, a client shared that leading a day-long virtual meeting was hands down the most stressful day of his entire career. We all laughed, but we get it.

As shared in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “On a video call the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But, in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never. This is because having to engage in a “constant gaze” makes us uncomfortable — and tired.”

I have worked virtually in some form for almost twenty years. But now everything is virtual, and that distinction is notable. We are now on a quest to replace the in-person interaction virtually. As a wise expert once said, “I don’t work from home, I live at work.” This is especially true for parents with children in class from their bedrooms.

Since you are now in this virtual world – here are tips for improving your communication to be more effective and more enjoyable.

Phone calls still work. (Not everything needs to be on Zoom!)

The significant increase in reliance on video is contributing to mental fatigue. Yet, a discussion with just audio is entirely appropriate based on your agenda. Decide what’s needed and organize the conversation upfront and get ready:

Considerations when deciding video vs. just audio:

Video call when you:

  • Need to engage and discuss; replaces what may have been an in-person discussion
  • Need ideas or creative input where interaction elevates the options
  • Want to recreate an in-person experience
  • Want to build trust – people that you haven’t met; clients that would typically like to meet in person; team members you haven’t seen in a long time, or they don’t see each other often
  • Plan to discuss a sensitive topic that will benefit from face to face interaction and you can see expressions and reactions

Phone call (or audio-only) when you:

  • Have a straightforward agenda or topic
  • Hold regular meetings and participants know each other well and connect often
  • Have topics more process-focused and familiar with less individual impact

Tell people in advance how you will engage with participants.

If you plan to host an all-in video call – set the expectation upfront, so everyone participates in the same way. Avoid a discussion with half of the attendees on audio-only, and the others are wondering why they showered first. It’s difficult to engage participants with everyone connecting differently.

It’s what you do – not just what you say.

While there are conflicting percentages, most studies agree that over half of our communication is non-verbal. Non-verbal is even more challenging when communicating by video. This is even more important in one-on-one conversations.


  • If you need to take notes have a plan so you aren’t consistently looking away from the conversation
  • If you have two screens, be sure that you face the one that uses your camera
  • On a call or audio-only, you may have the luxury to be on mute and send another email, but on video, this ‘look away’ can signal disinterest
  • Check the placement of your computer/camera. Every day I interact with someone who looks like they are peeking over a wall, or we can only see the right side of their face. Don’t let technology undermine you.

Show up on video just as you would in person with some grace.

Set your background to give the impression you want to give – organized, professional, or creative. There is a funny Twitter account called Room Rater, and they take everyone to task with stark blank walls or messy backgrounds. Now everyone sees your environment, and it says something about you.

Likewise, your appearance will have the same impact as if you were in a room together. You may typically live in sweat pants and t-shirts, but up your game for important conversations – at least from the waist up.

Also, all of us also understand that children in the background, barking dogs, and a ringing doorbell are now a natural part of “living at work”.

Stop waiting to “get back to normal” on how we work because we won’t.

It’s been amazing to see so much creativity and resilience since March of this year. There is a stark contrast between those waiting for normal to return and those who have embraced this virtual challenge. I don’t expect a snap back to the way we worked and connected before. So, if you still use the same communication game plan you had last year – this is an opportunity to change. Use technology to connect and learn all of the features – like polls, chats, and breakout rooms to improve the experience. Make a phone call to say hello when you can no longer pass in the hallway or say hello in the break room. Rethink how you work and communicate because this virtual experience isn’t temporary.

This year is the nudge and opportunity to redesign how you connect and stay in touch with others. Everyone you work with will thank you for it.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults.