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The Emily Post of Zoom etiquette wants you to turn on your camera

April 30, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

Nicknamed “The Etiquette Lady,” Elaine Swann started the Swann School of Protocol back in 2003 after spending years volunteering to teach etiquette through after-school programs and college events. Like many businesses, Swann had to pivot to virtual interactions during the pandemic. But the move online provided a unique opportunity as her corporate clients started paying her to teach them how to navigate this virtual space—virtually. 

She’s since become an expert in the space, seeing an almost 20% increase in her training courses designed to provide executives with best practices on how to effectively lead online. In fact, the New York Times reportedly dubbed Swann “The Emily Post of the Digital Age.” We spoke with her about how you can apply her learnings to your own online work persona as well as some of the biggest mistakes she still sees workers making on video calls. 

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Elaine swann sitting at a computer
Courtesy of Elaine Swann

You’ve been in the etiquette space for a while, but how did your business pivot during the pandemic?

We recognized that the work-from-home movement was most certainly going to be part of our everyday life, and it wasn’t something that was going to be temporary. What we found is that people really needed to figure out exactly how to engage in this area, and to do so from a professional perspective. We didn’t really have standards, as far as this is concerned, because we initially looked at video conferencing as a luxury, as opposed to the everyday way of doing business. Once we recognized that, I immediately jumped into heavy research and began to develop curriculum and training to help folks navigate through this space successfully. 

How do you go about creating the best practices for how workers should interact with these newer forms of communication like video conferencing? 

I spend a lot of my time doing research. We also have an internal system for surveying people to really find out what’s happening on the ground. I take that information and align it with what I like to refer to as our three core values: respect, honesty, and consideration. 

What are some of the biggest pain points clients are asking you to help address?

Our clients want their staff members to represent their company or their brand in the most professional manner. An example: a client who just spoke with us recently said one of their staff members took a Zoom call with a customer, and she was out in the backyard with her little ones roaming around. Another client talked about the fact that too many of their staff members would take calls with clients and leave the camera off because maybe they’re not in an environment where their camera can be on. You can’t have them looking at a blank screen.

Folks have gotten a little too casual. One of the biggest pain points is reminding folks that we still need professionalism, that you’re still on the clock, and you still have to represent the company well. A meeting is still a meeting, whether it is virtual or in person. And we still have to represent ourselves, our company and the brand well. 

Bringing in a third party to help lay out some of those guidelines tends to be a lot more helpful for a company than the HR person saying: ‘This is what you have to do.’ It’s different when you go to a training, and you understand the reasoning behind why we need to uphold these particular standards.

What are some of the tips and suggestions that you recommend that may be a small change, but can have a big impact on how you’re perceived?

I’ll use the same example with the camera. People will turn their camera off. Maybe they feel as though they’re not in the best environment or maybe they’re in different time zones.

However, when we’re interfacing with clients it’s very, very important for people to not only hear us, but they have to see us as well. That’s the best way for us to represent the brand. People not only hear what you’re saying, but they can see the other nuances that we utilize to communicate. Our body language and non-verbal cues. Everything from raising our eyebrows to smiling helps to further our communication with the client. 

Folks have gotten a little too casual. One of the biggest pain points is reminding folks that we still need professionalism.

For meetings between co-workers, what recommendations do you have for companies that are trying to navigate hybrid working environments where some employees may be in the office and others are remote?

Each company has to set a standard for how they interact in this manner. If you’ve got some folks on Zoom and some in the office, then create a standard. For the folks who are in the office, I do recommend for companies to bring everyone into the offices around a conference table. And then the ones who are joining virtually, they then join from a virtual perspective. That way, everyone is present instead of people locking themselves away in different offices or cubicles. 

It fosters collaboration, and it also fosters more effective communication as well. The person is sitting right across the table. It’s even helpful for the folks who are joining virtually because then they get to witness how everyone is collaborating, and how it’s coming together. 

With two years of the pandemic behind us, is there something that you feel like we were all doing at the beginning of the pandemic when it comes to video calls that now is a no-no?

The half dress. A lot of people were doing that half dressing at the very beginning, and we saw that that just did not work. There were too many faux pas or too many accidents. Our mindset shifted as far as that was concerned. Instead of even pajamas on the bottom and regular clothes on the top, they’re at least getting the elastic athleisure wear or what have you, which is more acceptable.

As more people return to the office, is there any workplace etiquette we might have forgotten?

It’s important for us to keep in mind that not everyone who’s returning is doing so at the same pace, in terms of normalcy. So when we come back into the office, there might be some folks who are not quite ready to be in close quarters—not quite ready to shake hands, or give hugs, or have you in their space. And we have to respect that.

Before we dive in and start shaking hands with folks and giving hugs and all of that, ask how they feel about it first. There might be some individuals who are just not ready to remove their masks based on the environment that they’re in. And if that’s the case, we have to make sure that we’re respecting people’s wishes.

People have been impacted by this pandemic in a variety of ways. You might have someone returning to the office who lost both parents. Or maybe they’re someone who seems to catch every variant. Some people might be a little more cautious. So we need to be respectful of other people’s wishes and their behavior—and we shouldn’t spend any time trying to lecture someone or talk them out of how they’re feeling.

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