Help! Everyone Is Judging My Messy Bedroom

Dear OOO:

Is everyone judging my background on Zoom? All of my coworkers have these lovely setups with stark white bookcases and hanging plants, but I’m lucky if I can sweep the laundry off the bed behind me in time for my morning meeting. And our bedroom is the only room that doesn’t include remote school or a screaming 4-year-old or my husband’s Zoom meetings. I pin people’s tiles so I can marvel at their great taste and evidently higher salaries. And then I assume they’re sneering at my Ikea bedspread. How can I stop feeling so anxious about this?
–Marie, Cleveland

Remember conference calls? In the olden days, everyone used to call the same number to connect to a “conference bridge” that linked all their phones together in a little telephonic party bus, and then everyone would just … talk to each other. It was wild.

Anyway, hello, and welcome to WIRED’s new work advice column. I am your adviser, in part because I have experience doling out work advice, and in part because I am the editor of this very website and pulled rank when I saw an opportunity to yell at people on the internet about how to improve their lives (instead of, say, working to improve my own life). My goal is to help you make your work life better—whether, like me, you’re starting year two of toiling from home, or commuting to a workplace because your presence at a specific place is more crucial than mine—mostly by telling you that your colleagues are boneheads or that you are a bonehead. (Marie, you are an exception here.) So let’s go.
I mention conference calls because we as a society seem to have forgotten that cell phones can actually make phone calls in the age of the pandemic. I used to talk to so many people on the phone; these days, I’m constantly moving my laptop from the surface of my desk to the stack of books that props it up for video calls. I am writing this between Zooms nine and ten today. It’s too much! Most video conferences should be phone calls, and most phone calls should be emails.

Of course, phone calls help but may not solve the true substance of your problem; they can hide your bedroom but not eliminate your deeper insecurity.

But I bet if I looked on the other side of the laptops broadcasting your coworkers’ thriving pothos and suspiciously intact home libraries, I’d see dust and dirty dishes and a hoodie or three strewn around. Just because their homes allow them to disguise chaos better than yours does, that does not mean the chaos isn’t there.

I mentor a bunch of low-income high school students who are applying to college this year, and many colleges now ask students to upload videos “about themselves” as part of the application. Maybe they genuinely think they can get to know students in a 120-second clip, or perhaps this is a misguided attempt to be cool and TikTok-y, but either way I think it’s backfiring. For the most part, these colleges give their overwhelmed 18-year-old applicants no guidance on the content of these videos, but they are very specific about their preferred setting. In the words of one Ivy League institution, a clutter-free background helps “put your best foot forward.” “Messy room 👎,” their “do’s and don’ts” video instructs. For one of my students, who shares a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and two strangers, her lack of a sufficiently austere setting nearly scared her out of applying.

Surely we agree that the elitist college is the bad guy in this story, yes? Ergo, you may work with clueless, rich, snooty people—in which case it may be worth looking for another job. But maybe you work with decent people who are also insecure in these anxiety-inducing pandemic times, and their insecurities just express themselves through maniacally staging their backgrounds. Some of them may even be envious that you are riding these times out with a passel of people in your home.