The fraught etiquette of Skype and Hangouts

Working from home removes a lot of stress. You trade the delayed commutes on crowded trains for naps, for example. But as a journalist, I spend a lot of time on the phone, often with people who live far away. This week, I've spoken to academics in Australia and privacy advocates in Canada. Thanks to the internet, I need not rack up massive long-distance phone bills handy as one of the downsides of working for yourself is paying your own bills.

Instead of calling on my mobile phone who has a landline these days? I can dial my interviewees on Skype or set up a Google Hangout. As brilliant as both are, they raise an issue of etiquette: should I leave my video on? This is never discussed beforehand. We don't schedule in our calendars a "video conference call", it's merely a call. How I wish we were more specific.

And so, when I log onto the call, I haven't a clue whether a face is going to pop up on my desktop display, or if the other party will see what I normally wear to work pyjamas, or whatever T-shirt was closest upon exiting the bed. I was never known for my sharp fashion sense when I worked in the PC Pro offices, but I must admit it's degraded further since. It's almost a philosophical question, akin to the tree falling in an empty forest making a sound: is my hair done if no-one sees it?

It's not only me, it's my office. Since recently moving home further out into the sticks, where houses magically expand into viable living spaces I actually have a dedicated room for my home office. This is better for conference calls than the dining room-cum-lounge-slash-office in our more central, much smaller London flat, where the chance of being on video meant I needed to clean up breakfast and rearrange the cushions on our sofa, to cover the stains. (It, and they, came with the flat.)

Still, even in my home office, tidying is in order: after brushing my hair and changing my shirt to something not recently slept in, I need to adjust the dirty dishes I've left on my husband's desk (I'm a good wife) so they're hidden by his chair, and tuck away anything distracting or embarrassing.

This is less of a problem in a real office, even if it's open-plan. Anything stupid in the background can be blamed on messy or immature coworkers. On my last call, I realised midway through that, if I shifted in my chair, a stuffed llama on my husband's computer came into view, grinning nervously like the public policy staffers sat behind Mark Zuckerberg at Congress. Yes, I am a professional adult.

There could be a tech solution. Years ago, at an Intel Developer Forum, the engineer I was speaking to about the RealSense camera suggested the multi-lens 3D system could be used for videoconferencing, blocking out anything a foot behind the caller, or slipping in a benign background like an office wall. RealSense never really took off, but if Skype et al supported such a function, there is no price too high for a webcam with that set up.

But, alas, the real situation is probably, ugh, communication, asking my contacts if they'd like a video call or just a voice call and then perhaps refusing to speak to the former, as they're clearly evil. That would at least avoid the wasted effort. After spending ten minutes brushing my hair, slapping make-up on the spot that was weirdly highlighted in Google Hangouts, and clearing my office of breakfast and many cups of coffee, my interviewee's video didn't come on when I accepted her call.

It wasn't working, a great excuse I may try going forward, but at the time I didn't have the nerve to turn mine off too, meaning I spoke to a perfectly pleasant still image of her face while she got half an hour to examine how I choose to live, stuffed llamas and all.

To make this easier for awkward hermits such as myself, can we all agree on some video-call etiquette? Rule one: default to voice calls. Rule two: if you must do video, warn the other party first. And rule three: if you see something odd, politely ignore it especially if it's my hair.

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