Working at home, it turns out, is not the same as working alone.

When companies began closing their offices earlier this month in response to the coronavirus crisis, and instructing employees to work from home, we thought that meant finally getting away from the overly chatty colleague in the next cubicle. We could sit down at our laptops without showering and no one would be the wiser.

Instead, we’re interacting with our coworkers more than ever. They’re in our living rooms. They’re in our kitchens. Sometimes they’re even in our bedrooms.

For that, we can thank the availability of easy-to-use video conferencing apps like Zoom and Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Go to Meeting, which have made it possible to take office communications beyond the brusque, text-based messages of Slack and email. We’re still seeing our colleagues face-to-face on a regular basis, even if it’s just through the fish-eye lens of our computers. But whatever firewall once existed between our work selves and home selves has gone completely out the window.

When they talk about how we’re all in this together, they mean that literally. People who we would never have dreamed of inviting into our homes are now able to critique our living room decor — or, as the case may be, the absence of living room decor. How are we supposed to concentrate on what a colleague is saying when we’re busy peering into our coworkers’ homes, checking out the pictures on the walls, scanning the book titles and looking for signs of a secret life? It’s very, very intimate.

Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Photo Assignment Editor Alejandro A. Alvarez is working out of his kitchen during the crisis. Along with other editors, he participates in daily newsroom meetings via Zoom.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Photo Assignment Editor Alejandro A. Alvarez is working out of his kitchen during the crisis. Along with other editors, he participates in daily newsroom meetings via Zoom.

As life with our cubicle-mates has gone virtual, it’s opened up whole new questions of etiquette and self-presentation. Do you really want your colleagues, who have only known you in business attire, to see you in a sweatshirt and ball cap? Can they tell that you had to descend into the basement to avoid being interrupted by the kids? What will colleagues think when they realize you’re living in a tiny studio without a single framed picture on the wall? We’ve been introduced to a whole new kind of work stress: the Zoom meeting.

Zoom has become so popular, so quickly, that it’s no surprise the ground rules would be unclear. A relatively recent start-up, the company — which has seen its share price double since January — was unprepared for the onslaught of new users. Its loose data privacy and security practices are already under investigation by the New York attorney general, although company officials say they are working day and night to tighten controls. For most of us, however, the more immediate concern is how bad our hair looks when we join a meeting.

Pamela Lowe-Waters, an interior designer who works for Nemo Tile, was also worried about how her home would look to clients. She quickly realized that the new work-from-home regimen called for emergency redecorating. She had recently downsized from a large Mount Airy house to a compact Manayunk rowhouse. With two adult children camped in the bedrooms, she didn’t have the luxury of a home office.

“When I first saw myself against a white wall, it looked like l was in prison,” she says. She immediately started redesigning a corner of her dining room to create a more office-like backdrop. “Fortunately, I had just hung some beautiful new drapes, pale gray with a silvery trellis pattern.” She moved some vintage bookcases into the frame, brought in a pot of fuchsia tulips for a pop of color, and artfully arranged her collection of Native American pots.

Some tech gurus will tell you that a neutral wall is the most desirable backdrop for a Zoom meeting. Show nothing, they argue. Don’t believe them, architects and public relations experts say.

When Miami Dolphins NFL football player Emmanuel Ogbah participated in a Zoom news conference last week, he sat in front of a completely neutral background.
Steve Wine / AP
When Miami Dolphins NFL football player Emmanuel Ogbah participated in a Zoom news conference last week, he sat in front of a completely neutral background.

“A couple of years ago, I was on a video call with a coworker and it looked like he was in a dungeon. It had a very Silence of the Lambs feel,” says Lowe-Waters.

Nicole Cashman, the founder of Cashman & Associates, a Philadelphia marketing firm that has been helping local companies with crisis management, agrees with that take. “I don’t think a white wall is interesting,” she says. But too much personality can also be a problem, she realized during an important video call with a client. “I had all this chinoiserie, these vases, in the background and, I thought, I can’t do that. It’s distracting. So I took some of the vases down.”

Cashman advises clients to follow the same rules they would for a broadcast interview. “Yes, you should brush your hair. Yes, you should wear makeup, Yes, you should appear to care,” she says. “No distracting patterns on clothing.”

A full view of Nicole Cashman's home office.
Courtesy of Nicole Cashman
A full view of Nicole Cashman's home office.

The brave new world of video meetings is perhaps best exemplified by the infamous Jennifer, who supposedly took her laptop with her to the bathroom during an office meeting, according to an account featured on Bored Panda. Many people will never forget the horrified look on Robert E. Kelly’s face a few years ago when his child paraded into his home office in South Korea during an on-air interview with the BBC, and his wife had to stage a quick intervention.

“I’ve got my 5-year-old trained,” Cashman says. “When the door is closed, he can’t come in.” Still, as Kelly learned, it might be worth locking the door anyway.

For Rosalind Tsang, an architect who designs luxury condos for New York’s RAMSA, the stress comes from the disconnect between her wealthy clients’ rarefied world and the modesty of her own one-bedroom apartment. "I’ve never had to work at home before,” she says. “There’s an illusion that architects all have well-designed spaces, and I’m kind of embarrassed that my living room is filled with boxes” that have never been unpacked.

Fortunately for those who would rather not show their mess, some conferencing apps allow you to insert a virtual backdrop. “One of the writers who works for me has been having fun switching up his backgrounds each day, from the beach to a sidewalk café,” says Lori Doyle, Drexel’s vice president for communications. She originally decided to stick with a real-life view of her home office. That changed after “my husband walked behind me in his pajamas, not realizing there were six people watching him.”

Dan Hockstein, a former Philadelphia-based audio engineer who recently took a new job in North Carolina, thought it would be fun to use a photograph of his real office as a backdrop during a Zoom meeting with coworkers. A few minutes into the session, “my boss is DM-ing me, saying, you’re not supposed to be working in the office,” Hockstein says.

Then there is the no-video option favored by many camera-shy people. Although I have a home office, complete with a wall of bookcases, my computer faces a large closet and a stack of boxes. I was initially reluctant to allow video during my first Zoom meeting. Then I realized by rotating my laptop 90 degrees, I could crop out the mess and make the bookcases the background. I just hope my colleagues don’t try to read the titles.