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It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and during a company Zoom call someone decides to light a cigarette. Most people would likely turn off their cameras but Barry Neufeld, a Canadian school trustee, didn’t. His colleagues were appalled, many called for his resignation and the matter of a cheeky cigarette caused a mini-media storm in the city of Chilliwack, British Columbia.
In fairness, being caught smoking was the least of Neufeld’s worries. As he puffed away within the confines of his home, he sipped from a wine glass on camera and also at one point appeared to fall asleep. The meeting he was attending was called in response to a growing campaign that was already asking for his resignation. But he’s not the only one being reprimanded for smoking or drinking on Zoom. Ten months into the pandemic, social norms usually respected in the office have started to fall away.
As the grey area between work and home life becomes more blurred, actions at home are being used to reprimand employees, and can even cost them their jobs.
Light a cigarette in a normal office space and you’ll likely receive a stern email from HR before you’ve finished the first drag. And for a while, the same mentality applied to the virtual office. In the first few months of the pandemic, many people were conscious of ‘Zoom etiquette’, consulting guides that detailed how employees should sit up straight, speak upon entry and dress appropriately.
But, after almost a year of working from home, some of us have lost it. Alex started her new communications job in London on the day before the first UK lockdown came into effect in March 2020. For the most part she has only met her colleagues through a computer screen, but Alex’s working day has been overrun by something unexpected: unprompted baby pageants.
Around 15 minutes of morning Zoom meetings are taken up watching colleagues show off their babies. Some of her colleagues coo, others share news of their children’s achievements in a game of parental one-upmanship. Alex simply wants to get on with the day.
“I’ve never met most of the people I work with so I now more closely associate my colleagues with which ones insist on bringing their babies on Zoom during catch up meetings, rather than what they do as a job,” she says. “Babies are such a polarising issue anyway. People either love them or aren’t really bothered. I fall into the latter camp but that’s fine if you’re in an office. It’s a bit overwhelming when it’s all there.”
Some rules as to what is and isn’t appropriate to do on a Zoom call will always be universal. Last year, US legal analyst and media commentator Jeffrey Toobin was let go from The New Yorker after exposing himself on camra. And there’s the bizarre story of Chris Platzer, a California city planning commissioner who resigned after being caught on camera drunkenly throwing a cat across his living room.
Cases like these are sackable but rare, and punishment is largely decided by the responsibility of a person’s role. Some might not see the problem in smoking if their work culture permits it, but for others — like this Conservative councillor responsible for public health who was caught lighting up during an online council meeting — the consequences of smoking on Zoom can be more serious.
Most people’s gripes about working virtually are much more mundane. A co-worker who insists on chewing directly into the microphone is gross, but what is merely frowned upon in the workplace and what could get you fired?
“In most circumstances an employer can’t lawfully take action against a member of staff who smokes at their home desk, but employees are entitled to expect staff to adhere to certain standards,” says Joanne Moseley, employment associate at Irwin Mitchell, a law firm. “They might be able to discipline someone for smoking at home if they do it in front of other people, but that’s provided they made their expectations clear beforehand.”
Some relaxations of typical workplace standards are obvious. “A suit and tie may no longer be needed but a t-shirt with expletives on it probably isn’t appropriate,” says Tom Neil, senior adviser at the workplace advisory board Acas.
A politician who was caught showering on camera during a virtual meeting, had furloughed staff across the country laughing, while others were probably less impressed, says Dean Hunter, founder of HR consultancy firm Hunter Adams. “But how are we doing after ten months on Zoom? Depending on people’s own self-awareness they may not realise their standards have visibly reduced.”
Most expectations of what is “proper” are much more subjective. After far too many virtual meetings Michael* is royally fed up with people’s attitudes. As a freelance consultant in the financial sector, his job is to advise global banks on matters of financial security and regulatory compliance, not to judge a person’s attire or their living room.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t. He’s tired of seeing men who haven’t shaved for months and project managers from international banks dancing around their rooms, not realising the camera is still on. “I don’t mean to sound cruel but people are being paid for a professional day,” he says. “Times are difficult, but if you are lucky to have a job that allows you to work from home then respect your company and provide value.”
Neil suggests employers install a home working policy that includes what would be appropriate or inappropriate, including on Zoom meetings. “A certain amount of disruption is a fact of life for many people at the moment,” adds Moseley. “It’s unrealistic to expect staff to replicate their workplace conditions.”
That said, few people would want to be told what they do in their own homes. “Employees will do what they want in their own home but each person’s view of what is acceptable differs greatly,” says Hunter. “Be careful not to dictate behaviours off camera. Whilst it may be decades since it was acceptable to smoke at the office, home working means people set their own rules.”
*Names have been changed
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