It has been almost 28 months since offices closed and millions of people started working from home. More than enough time to buy a ring light, hang some art on the walls, and figure out the mute button. But as it is clear to Claude Taylor, co-creator of the Twitter account room evaluatorthat writes down funds from video calls, that is not what has happened.
“You’re not going to do well,” he warned me, spying on my spare, dimly lit walls over Zoom. “You have to put some works of art. Hit a big frame there!
Mr. Taylor rated my video’s backdrop a three out of 10, though he softened the blow with a word of caution: “It’s all just a gimmick,” he said. “We are not interior decorators. We just pretend to be on Twitter.”
There was a time in April 2020 when hand sanitizer was in short supply, time was plentiful, and, perhaps to distract from the fear and uncertainty of a raging pandemic, those lucky enough to stay home enjoyed judging the homes of the others, who were also stuck. Taylor and her friend Jessie Bahrey began posting their judgments on Twitter. Celebrities battled it out for top Room Rater scores, outfitting their homes with plants, billboards and the obligatory copy of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker.”
“Within a matter of months, the people we were classifying as twos and threes were becoming eights, nines and tens,” said Taylor, who wrote a book with Ms. Bahrey called “How to Zoom Your Room,” which is will publish this month. week. “People have cleaned up her acting quite a bit. Of course, we take some degree of credit for that.”
But not everyone was encouraged to improve the Zoom room. Although the number of daily Zoom participants jumped from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020, many are still sitting in front of blank walls creating what Mr. Taylor calls “hostage videos.” They’re tilting the camera up their noses to get an accidental “full nostril view.”
By the end of 2021, three million professional roles have gone permanently remote. Many other workers have been in limbo, returning to the office part-time or waiting for a back-to-office plan that won’t be postponed. Office occupancy across the country remains below 50 percent. The confusion and ambivalence people feel can make it difficult to invest in making a remote work setup feel permanent.
“Investing in an uncertain future is tough,” said Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental health startup Coa. “If you want to go back to the office and you don’t want to stay home, there’s less chance you’ll be dropping money on a fancy fund.”
Even Dr. Anhalt said she was hesitant to give up on the idea that any day or month she could return to her pre-pandemic routine: “I didn’t really take the time to mourn the life that I was living before,” she said. “Being able to see my patients in person, being able to see their body language.”
A new office culture
The last two years have changed the way we work in profound ways.
Some workers have felt acutely the challenges of continuing to work from home. Parents have divided their brains between professional obligations and children. Extroverts have gone crazy in small apartments. Young employees have wondered how to find work mentors or friends.
“People feel like they are at this continuous breaking point,” said Andréa Coutu, a business consultant. “Some are itching to get back into the office so they can have that separation between work and home, so they’re not the default caregiver when something goes wrong.”
Many have been thrust abruptly into the isolation of remote work, and have yet to accept that their future work arrangements may not look exactly like they did before 2020. The technical mishaps of the early weeks of the pandemic keep repeating themselves, such as “The office” meets “Groundhog Day”.
“There are still people who say, ‘I’m sorry I was struggling with the mute button, can you hear me now?’” said Rachele Clegg, 28, who worked for a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, during most of the pandemic.
In March 2020, Ms. Clegg was in a meeting where her boss’s video chat didn’t work and wouldn’t turn off the filter that made her look like a potato.
“When he leaned over, it was a potato,” Mrs Clegg recalled. “When she peeked out, she was a potato in the dirt.”
Ms. Clegg was surprised to discover that those kinds of technological difficulties have not abated. After two years, remote work still feels, at times, like an improv show.
Many people have continued to work from home with a certain level of frivolity, as if any day could herald a radical return to cubicles and commuting. Last week, Sujay Jaswa, a former Dropbox executive, made a video shoot with the camera pointed at his ceiling. (“Their business philosophy doesn’t include achieving a decent zoom,” Room Rater wrote.) Managers say they’ve been surprised by some of the items that show up in the background of professional calls: laundry, sheets, takeout containers.
“I was interviewing someone for a job the other day and behind him on his counter was an open vodka handle,” said Noah Zandan, who runs the training platform Quantified. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt about what’s behind them, but there are things at stake that need to happen.”
The more image-conscious made an effort to improve their video backgrounds early in the pandemic. Beto O’Rourkethe Democratic candidate for governor of Texas, was one of Room Rater’s most improved targets, raising his score from zero to 10. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss was awarded for having the 2020 “room of the year”, fitting recognition for a scholar who has studied what the design of the Oval Office can teach about presidential administrations.
Most workers communicated with their bosses, not with the American public. Still, spending on home improvements and maintenance is up and is 11 percent higher than pre-Covid projections, according to consulting firm McKinsey. Office furniture sales soared, especially ergonomic chairs.
People even paid for literary experts to curate their bookshelves. Books by the Foot, for example, which sells used books in bulk, spent the first few months of the pandemic serving clients seeking scholarly Zoom backgrounds. Requests poured in for boxes full of business books or books with earth-toned covers.
“They wouldn’t say, ‘I’m looking for a Zoom fund,’” said Chuck Roberts, the company’s owner. “They would say ‘I want to have 12 feet of classic biographies,’ and we usually read between the lines.”
“For 2021 you saw a little less of that,” said Jessica Bowman, who runs the Books by the Foot service, explaining that many of her customers are now focused on filling their homes with books they really want to read.
“Orders are becoming more personalized,” he added. “It’s the house being your own sanctuary, and just making it cozy for you, rather than being a Zoom background.”
Others argue that a comfortable, or even messy, Zoom background is a sign of pride, the sign of someone too hard-working to bother hanging artwork. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey received a score of two in room evaluator in May 2020. This came as no surprise to him, he said, because he spent that spring working long hours as the country grappled with the crisis.
“This was before Rosario officially moved out and my house was very single, which you would expect from single life,” he reflected in an interview last week, referring to his girlfriend at the time, actress Rosario Dawson. “The only green things were growing in my refrigerator.”
However, the senator’s employees decided that his video fund was worth investing in. His chief of staff asked someone to buy her 10 tiny plants, after a trade with Room Rater. His score jumped to 10, with the caption: “Ten plants. ten tries.
It turns out that tiny plants can have outsized effects. Some remote workers said all they needed were little touches to make their living rooms feel less like placeholders for the office and more like actual workspaces, which is even more necessary as plans are shelved. Back at the office.
“Do you know how a chef has a mise en place?” said Noel Casler, a podcaster and comedian. “I want a reminder of how big the world is, even when we’re all doing everything online.”
Looking at other people’s Zoom backgrounds can be a reminder that some people have a lot more room to work with. Still, Taylor insists everyone can brighten up their homes: “We don’t want it to be the lifestyle of the rich and famous.”
And Mr. Casler’s advice is not to overdo it. It borrows from Coco Chanel, who advised that before leaving the house people should “look in the mirror and take one thing off.”
“When cooking, writing or whatever, less is always more,” Casler said.
In your case, minus is a perfect score. Or, as she said when asked about her Room Rater status: “Club 10 out of 10.”