What’s the best background for video calls? Most people get it wrong.

July 6, 2023

It’s one of the most hotly debated topics facing workers in the videoconferencing age in which we live: What background will make the best impression?

Some people believe the best background is a generic, plain “hostage” wall. No distractions, no chance of giving bosses, colleagues, or customers the wrong impression. But then there are the mavericks who prefer to spice things up with a fun, unique background, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Most people fear that showing their favorite Star Wars scene will create a negative impression on others, and settle for the plain wall instead. But the Journal’s findings suggest that people should more often do just the opposite, and that they would be better off showing their true colors (up to a point, of course).

Decades of research show that other people’s judgments of us have a major impact on our lives. Because of this, in person or in videoconferences, we want to put our best foot forward.

In person, we are well-practiced at creating positive impressions—for example, by dressing our best, standing up straight, and smiling.In videoconferences, however, creating positive impressions is more challenging. This is because videoconferences lack the richness of in-person interactions; we can only manage impressions using what is visible on screen. This can minimize the impact of in-person cues like clothing and body language.

Fortunately, however, videoconferences offer a new tool for impression management: the background image that is visible behind us, whether it is real (a kitchen) or virtual (Star Wars). Indeed, in a survey conducted by the Journal, 83% of the people agreed that controlling their background could maximize their ability to create a positive impression, and 53% indicated that they form an impression of the person they are talking to based on their background.

The question is whether their desire to form a good impression is matched by their ability to pick the right background.

To explore how people choose backgrounds—and how people judged others’ backgrounds—we used the context of customer service, with employees and customers interacting via videoconferences. What we discovered suggests a mismatch between what employees chose and what customers preferred.

We conducted a series of experiments with over 2,000 participants. We found that when they are in the employee role, people tend to choose nonrevealing backgrounds—those that do not convey much information about themselves, such as plain walls. However, when people became customers, they prefer interacting with employees with revealing backgrounds—those that give a glimpse into their personalities, such as musical instruments or artwork.

How could that be? Why would we believe one type of background makes the best impression for ourselves, while being most impressed by a different type of background for others?

Our research shows that it boils down to employees’ and customers’ different priorities. In the employee role, people make appearing competent their priority; and they believe that nonrevealing backgrounds convey competence, while revealing backgrounds convey the opposite.

But the experiments demonstrate that these beliefs are incorrect: Nonrevealing backgrounds don’t make employees appear more competent, and revealing backgrounds actually make employees seem friendlier and more sincere. And, as long as customers are sure that employees are sufficiently competent, customers prefer friendly and warm employees—that is, those who use revealing backgrounds.

Indeed, experiments show that customers are more satisfied with customer-service interactions when employees use revealing backgrounds. They are also more willing to interact with those employees again, and to recommend them to others. And potential customers on social media were more likely to click on an ad for a videoconference with a nutritionist when the ad featured a revealing background.

But beware: Not all revealing backgrounds are the same. When videoconference backgrounds reveal not-so-favorable information—a messy room or an insect collection—then they create a worse impression than a nonrevealing plain wall. So people should make sure that what their background reveals—whether it is real or virtual—is pleasant as well as personal.

Research contact: @WSJ