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Balancing Privacy and Connecting with Others in Digital Spaces

Posted on 2 March 2022

Written by:

Elly Mead

Recently during a meeting, one of our partners commented on Jake’s Zoom background – an image of a forest scene, bluebells scattered across the ground in full spring glory. It is often an amusing background, as Jake shifts around during calls the bluebells will occasionally reclaim him, which gives the impression that he is fading back into the forest. The comments kick-started an internal conversation within our team about our backgrounds in digital spaces, and why we choose to use them and also why sometimes we don’t. We were so struck by some of the points we discussed that we felt we wanted  to capture some of the conversation points in a blog.

Image credit – Secret London

Protecting our privacy

The action of obscuring our backgrounds is not just rooted in potential worry about unattractive or distracting backdrops, it is also an act of reclamation. The pandemic has shifted our working habits, and a vast number of people are still carrying out their day-to-day office functions within their own spaces, working from home office set-ups and relying heavily on Zoom and other online spaces to host meetings and have conversations. 

Working from home and using video conferencing gives others a window into your room, your home, your space. It gives others a more intimate view into our lives, which wouldn’t usually be afforded or expected in face-to-face working. It feels important to protect that space, to place a boundary that a view into your home is a privilege and not a right. As digital privacy becomes less and less easy to protect, perhaps it is time we place greater emphasis on savouring and valuing the private spaces within our homes that are inadvertently exposed in digital meeting spaces.

The importance of privacy becomes more sharply focused when we bring another strand into consideration; that not all of us have the privilege of a dedicated work space, and often the backgrounds of our lounges, bedrooms or spare rooms aren’t ‘Zoom ready’ for this new digital professional space.  This added pressure of passive surveillance into our homes is unwelcome, we should not have to curate the inside of our homes to be work appropriate. Our homes are safe spaces from the outside world, and as such should be designed or organised to bring us comfort, flexibility and the freedom to be ourselves. In this regard, I often consider Zoom backgrounds as digital screens, allowing a degree of personalisation whilst maintaining essential privacy. 

Sophia’s background image of Florence – her home for 14 years. Image Credit: Sophia de Sousa

Expressing ourselves

Many of us who have worked online during the pandemic will have spent considerable amounts of time with colleagues or acquaintances we have actually not met in person. A new colleague, a project partner from abroad or an online event, there are many scenarios where Zoom backgrounds are part of your ‘image’ of that person. To go back to the example of Jake’s bluebell background, we are majoritively still working online at The Glass-House, and so now this background image has become a part of how I think about Jake in online spaces. Like a trusty side-kick, the flowers are with him whenever we log into a meeting or session. Sophia often uses an image from her local park, or of beautiful Florence at sunset. Both of these interplay with how I recollect Sophia during meetings or when I remember a conversation we have had. If this image is part of how people consider and recall our digital presence, then it makes sense that we give ourselves the freedom to select something more personal, and more private.

One facet of working from home in online spaces, whether or not we choose to use a background as a ‘digital screen’, is that our impressions and perceptions of one another continue to be shaped by our visual presence. In the many spaces we occupy online, the background to our video adds another layer and shape to our ‘image’. A digital background offers a happy medium between the interplay of privacy and personal. It offers a degree of control and allows us to choose whether to share our spaces and therefore aspects of our personal lives. If the small square of background behind our faces affects our digital presence, then it makes sense that we give ourselves the freedom to select something more personal, and more private.

Elly’s background, an image from her many rambling across the Peaks. Image Credit: Elly Mead

Connecting with each other

Whilst I fully stand by protecting privacy through the use of a good background to your Zoom call,  there is a fine line between this and not having the camera on at all. We come across this in larger calls (often in educational spaces), where anonymity amongst many is easier to maintain with the camera off. Whilst digital spaces are not in a place yet where they can foster the connection of in-person experiences (watch this space for the Metaverse!), there is something important and incredibly human about being able to see other people’s faces whilst you are speaking to them. If you are the host with your camera on in digital spaces, you can often feel alone in a sea of blank screens, or placed under a spotlight when other participants do not join on-camera. This all works against fostering connection in digital spaces, and is one of the reasons we kindly ask participants in our events to use their cameras if available, and if they are comfortable to do so. 

It is important to be mindful that when we turn our cameras off in digital spaces, we are removing an element of human contact from what can already be quite a cold online experience. Of course, individual circumstances will mean that this can’t be maintained at all times, and often life gets in the way. Sometimes it is not practical, or just easier to have the camera off for one session, and we completely understand the need to prioritise comfort when online. 

Some recommendations from The Glass-House team

When hosting a video call/session:

When participating in a video call:

Not only do we want this blog to be a capture of our thoughts around privacy, connection, online-working and digital spaces, we also want to prompt you to reclaim some privacy in this predominantly digital era! You can use any image for your background on a Zoom call, so have a look through your images to see if there is the perfect sunset, beautiful sky or forest scene which would be perfect. You can even get creative and make your own on programmes such as Adobe Photoshop. You can use our Zoom guide to find out how to change your background image, which is on our website here.