“If someone asked you before, ‘Do you want to sign up for a world in which your co-workers see inside of your house all the time?’, the answer would probably be ‘no,’ ” said Kelly Williams Brown, an etiquette expert.
Whelp, here we are. In a recent poll, 1 in 4 US workers said they’d been working from home entirely.
The line between our personal and professional spaces may be blurred, but in many ways, the rules of conduct are the same. For starters, it is still not OK to expose your genitalia to your co-workers, as Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker, did in a recent Zoom call. Nor should you look at pornography on your work computer — unless that is literally your job.
With our offices situated steps away from our living rooms and kitchens, it is easy to forget that our work computer is still for work, and that our colleagues are not our roommates.
“When people are sitting in their homes, it’s easy to multitask, to go between work and home,” said Samantha Ettari, the privacy counsel at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. “It’s tempting to do everything on your work laptop,” but, she said, it’s important to “protect your private space.”
How can I make sure private things don’t become public?
Many of us are now living with grown-up versions of the “I came to school naked” nightmare: Texts to your lover showing in your work chats. The nude self-portrait you painted popping up in a video chat on the wall behind you. Your collection of cannabis cookbooks appearing in the background of a video call with your boss.
“When you do these work video Zooms, you’re letting people into your home, but you’re still in a work environment,” Ettari said. From a legal perspective, that means you are still protected from discriminatory actions. For example, if you have a disability that your employer did not know about, it cannot retaliate against you based on that information.
Of course, much of what we do not want people to see has nothing to do with legality. Our concerns are more about the impressions we make.
“First of all, turn off your camera when you don’t need it,” said Lorrie Cranor, director of the CyLab Security and Privacy Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Or “get a tiny webcam cover,” said Brown, the author of “Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact and Unsinkable Strength.”
“You don’t have to worry about turning your video off. You will truly know that nobody can see you. That’s a lot of security for $8.” Cranor said a Post-it or a piece of opaque tape works, too.
When your camera is on, Cranor said, “make sure your computer is facing the wall.” She added: “Other than your cat dropping in, it should be hard for anyone to get into the frame.” Both Cranor and Brown suggested making use of virtual backgrounds.
Finally, Cranor said, “never share your whole screen, just share the particular application,” such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Word. If you’re hosting the meeting, you can disable other people’s ability to share their screens.
I had a minor disaster. How do I handle the situation gracefully?
“Make a very quick joke and move right on,” Brown said. “Say, ‘That was a lot more than I intended to share with you today. I’m sorry about that.’ The less you react to it, the less others will react to it.” She noted that, in most cases, people are sympathetic.
“If you have a bra in the background, presumably your co-workers know you wear bras or they could assume you do,” she said.
Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and host of the podcast “Awesome Etiquette,” recommended being sincere when apologizing, and letting people know it will not happen again.
How to judge if something you did or experienced is a serious offense? Think of it this way: If it is something that would not fly in your office, it is a no-go in a professional video meeting, conference call, or on your company-issued laptop or phone.
Remember, sexual harassment in the workplace does not need to occur inside the office. If you experience sexual harassment, including in the digital space, you have options, such as making a criminal complaint, alerting your employer or going to a government agency.
What if it is not you who is being embarrassing, but your colleague?
“It depends on the offense,” Post said. “If background noise is getting in the way, like the dog is barking, the kids are screeching, the construction is loud, those are things you can say, ‘Jim, do you mind muting for the background noise right now?’ You can be direct and upfront. If Jim doesn’t realize in any capacity that he’s doing embarrassing things, I would try to call or text Jim.”
Post pointed out that in some cases, your colleague’s actions might be beyond a faux pas. “Like the Jeffrey Toobin incident,” she said. “It’s so egregious, it has to be dealt with then and there. Say, ‘Your camera is on and it shouldn’t be right now. Shut it off and we will discuss it later.’ Or ‘We will end the call and discuss it now.’ ”
When should I mute myself?
“With any group larger than three you should be muted if you’re not talking,” Brown said. “The less people that are muted, the more that video call makes all of us subtly crazy because we were not designed to hear 10 environments at once.”
Post said the host of the conversation should take on the responsibility of muting and unmuting people, if they have that capability.
There are accessories that can make the mute-unmute transition simpler. “I got these gamer headphones with a microphone,” Brown said. “The sound quality is much better for hosting panels. Mine have a little button that can mute and unmute.”
Can I just skip being on camera?
“I think it’s a good idea to at least be present at the beginning of the call,” Brown said. “If it’s a meeting where you’re not presenting, it’s nice to show up, smile, greet people and once people start talking, turn your camera off.”
How do employers monitor what we do on our computers and how much do they know?
Not all employers monitor what you do on the devices they issue. Some will block entire websites, or regulate how, where and when you can use the company-issued device.
Or, “they could be monitoring you by having software on your computer that’s logging your keystrokes or taking a screenshot of what you’re doing,” Cranor said.
In some cases, all of your work computer’s web requests go through the employer’s proxy system, so whoever is tracking you can see what websites you visited.
Some companies do not just want to know what you are doing during work hours; they want to know where you are doing it, too, and will track where your devices are.
When it comes to newer technologies, like Slack or WhatsApp, Ettari said your company might not be able to monitor you in real time, depending on privacy settings or if the applications are loaded onto personal devices.
But that does not guarantee that your communications will remain private, even if they took place on your personal phone. For example, if you send work-related texts on your own phone and are later pulled into a lawsuit related to that work, your records could be required as evidence in court.
On a nonwork-related note, if you are wondering how to keep your personal exchanges safe, consider using messaging apps with end-to-end encryption options, like Signal. For more on that, read the guide to “Communicating With Others” from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization.
How do I know if I’m being monitored?
“If your employer is monitoring which websites you’re going to, every now and then, when you go to a website, there’s a notice that says you’re not allowed to go there,” Cranor said. Some employers have an alert set up for each time you log in that will tell you that you’re being watched.
To find out whether your company keeps track of your digital activities, ask the IT department or human resources, or check your employee handbook.
But when it comes to most private enterprises, the requirements depend on the state. Search for “electronic monitoring notice law” and your state’s name to see where your state stands.
“Some states have laws requiring employers to provide notice if they’re monitoring your email,” Ettari said. “A very small handful of states make them provide a daily notice.” Others have no laws around the issue.
What if I’m on my lunch break?
All the experts agreed: When you’re working, treat your at-home office the way you would your regular office. Based on what employer allows, it may be perfectly acceptable to spend a work break reading consumer reviews of hiking boots or texting your friends to plan trivia night.
“Employers and colleagues should adjust expectations and allow a certain amount of grace when it comes to workers’ personal lives bleeding into the workday — whether it’s taking time for child care, virtual schooling, looking after pets or managing our own well-being,” Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of the Information Networking Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in an email.
Ideally you could switch over to a personal computer, phone or tablet during your break.
After hours, the same theory applies. Take care when using your employer’s devices and ask what expectations and rules surround your usage of them.
I opened an inappropriate website on my work computer. What do I do?
“If you were there for five seconds and closed it and they are not monitoring closely, it won’t trigger any issues probably,” Cranor said. Consider telling someone what happened. “If you click a link that’s legitimate and it takes you somewhere that’s not legitimate, you should think about reporting it to your tech people,” Ettari said. “You could have been the victim of a phishing scam that introduced malware into your company system.”
If you’re concerned about how private your browser is, review its security settings, and check out these protective add-ons from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
While we’re here, someone please explain “incognito mode.”
Cranor said there is a lot of confusion around “incognito mode.”
“The main thing it gets you is that it doesn’t store the list of websites you’ve visited on your computer,” she said. Incognito mode does not provide a shield of anonymity. “If your employer is tracking you, they’ll still be able to track you if you’re using incognito mode.”
What should I definitely not do on my work devices?
“We are all responsible for setting boundaries between our personal and professional lives,” Haritos Tsamitis said. She suggested taking broad steps to separate different parts of your life. “This means sticking to scheduled work hours, creating a designated work space, restricting your work email to work-related communication and using your personal email for everything else,” she said.
But generally, you can be sure that some things are no-nos, such as anything that is illegal.
Do not spam people, do not harass anyone, do not download movies and shows illegally, and definitely, “don’t look at pornography,” Cranor said.
As a general rule of thumb, Haritos Tsamitis wrote, “behave as though you are physically in the office even when working from home.”