how your Zoom background can make you seem more competent

Work­ing from has made job inter­views and start­ing a new role eas­i­er in many ways. You don’t have to wor­ry about a missed train or spilt cof­fee derail­ing a job inter­view if it’s on Zoom – but you still need to impress your .

Your home sur­round­ings help show off your per­son­al­i­ty to the per­son on the oth­er end of the Zoom . Any­one who judged the book­cas­es of politi­cians and celebri­ties dur­ing the ear­ly days of lock­down will be famil­iar with this.

My col­leagues and I recent­ly con­duct­ed a study that found the in your dig­i­tal back­ground can affect how peo­ple view you. We already know that peo­ple make snap first impres­sions based on faces and voic­es. On a video call, you have to rep­re­sent your­self, but also your envi­ron­ment.

The messy table behind you may be seen as an indi­ca­tion of your per­son­al­i­ty and capa­bil­i­ties. An unmade bed shows a of atten­tion to detail. On the pos­i­tive side, plants that you’ve kept alive show­case your respon­si­bil­i­ty and matu­ri­ty.

We cre­at­ed still images of men and women with smil­ing and neu­tral expres­sions in front of var­i­ous back­grounds on a Zoom call. We then asked 167 peo­ple to rate the faces using a sev­en-point scale on how trust­wor­thy and com­pe­tent they thought they were.

We did­n’t men­tion the back­grounds, which allowed us to find out whether the same face would be rat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on what was behind them.

We found that plants or a book­case in the back­ground sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased rat­ings of trust and com­pe­tence. Con­verse­ly, a liv­ing room or nov­el­ty back­ground showed low­er rat­ings. A blank or blurred back­ground fell some­where in the mid­dle. We also found that smil­ing faces and females were gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as more trust­wor­thy and com­pe­tent.

A grid of six caucasian faces on zoom, both men and women, with varying backgrounds including a blank wall, plants, a bookshelf, a living room and a nature image of a walrus on an iceberg
Whose back­ground looks the most trust­wor­thy?
Pad­dy Ross, Author pro­vid­ed (no reuse)

we looked specif­i­cal­ly at faces with neu­tral expres­sions, we found no gen­der dif­fer­ence in rat­ings of trust or com­pe­tence when they were seat­ed in front of the plants and book­case. How­ev­er, the male faces were rat­ed as sig­nif­i­cant­ly less com­pe­tent if in front of a liv­ing room, nov­el­ty back­ground or blank wall.

All the faces in the data­base we used are white, thus avoid­ing becom­ing a con­found­ing fac­tor and allow­ing us to just focus on the effect of the Zoom back­grounds. How­ev­er, we know from oth­er research that sub­con­scious about race, class and dis­abil­i­ty can affect how job appli­cants are viewed. Zoom back­grounds may give an impres­sion of some­one’s her­itage, dis­abil­i­ty or socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus, so inter­view­ers must still make an effort to remain unbi­ased.

Tidy up your background

Most of us put a lot of time and effort into our appear­ance for a Zoom or inter­view. But much of what our web­cam actu­al­ly picks up is what’s behind us.

Our research shows that there are small tweaks you can make to help make a good vir­tu­al first impres­sion: put some plants behind you, or turn your desk so you’re framed by a book­case.

Of course, a down­side of work­ing from home is that many fac­tors are out of our con­trol. You may have to share a home office (or desk) with a flat­mate or part­ner, or have con­struc­tion going on near­by. As our find­ings show, if you don’t have much con­trol over your back­ground, smil­ing can help. There are also AI tools which allow you to vir­tu­al­ly “tidy up” or add a lit­tle sparkle to your back­ground space.

So, you’ve gone over your notes and popped on some smart clothes (at least on the top half of your body) take a look at your video pre­view or over your shoul­der. Does that back­ground give the best first impres­sion? If not, how close is your near­est gar­den cen­tre?

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