Personalizing Your Virtual Office

Creating an engaging professional background.

Now in your sixth month of quarantine, you have hopefully become accustomed to virtual meetings. You have probably become an expert in microphone setup and client technical support. Watching people pantomime that they can’t hear you is a thing of the past. The expectation is that you’re comfortable with the technology and the new client dynamic, but are you comfortable in your space?

When you saw clients in your office, you had made conscious decisions about your furniture, books, artwork, plants, and chachkas. But when you were thrown into virtual world, things simply evolved. Is it quiet without fear of interruption? Do I have power? Is my internet connection strong and stable? Can my client see my pile of dirty laundry behind me?

The quarantine has created a cottage industry in background interpretation. Websites and news articles have been devoted to the voyeuristic aspects of interpreting and dissecting those things situated behind celebrities during an interview. We all love a peek into other people’’s lives, especially those that have previously established boundaries. Obviously the patient / therapist relationship should be fully boundaried, so the added insight is desired by the patient. So while we all wait for a return to our professional environments, let’s take a moment and assess our virtual background.

We have all been trained in the frame…… the environment and relationship in which a therapist and patient can engage in a meaningful dialogue in a secure and meaningful manner.

Robert Lang writes:
"The therapist management of the ground rules of psychotherapy constitute his or her most fundamental arena of intervention, and the therapist’s efforts in this regard will greatly influence all of the other dimensions of the therapeutic interaction and experience".

But how is this altered with telehealth - ie: the Virtual Frame? We argue that it is not altered in a substantial way, but only through the medium of our experience. While we recognize that any change / alteration can be challenging, we identify strategies to limit impacts caused by the virtual frame. Surprisingly, we must appreciate that the virtual frame is quite literal… 4 boundaries of experience, and we need to be cognoscente that what is shown within them have meaning. Like Fellini or Kubrick, everything on the screen can be interpreted. Let us be aware of how we can recognize and control our message.

Why sweat it? All you need is a wall. Make sure your wall is clean and well painted. Get a “magic sponge” and wipe the kids crayon marks off the wall. If you hate the wallpaper behind you, use push pins at the ceiling to hang a clean and crisp white sheet. Consider the lighting around you. Heavy shadows are distracting. You want to achieve moderate contrast and gradations of lights. When done properly, some of your patients may appreciate the minimalist aesthetic. For others, the minimalist approach may be boring, unconsidered and impersonal. So consider adding a little personality to your background.

Who doesn’t love a bookshelf? They become a repository for so many of our personal affections: books we love, knick knacks we have collected, family photos, artworks, sculptures, plants, etc. We place these things there, where often they remain untouched, recognizable, familiar and comfortable. Going virtual, it becomes a background to utilize…. but there are things to consider and be aware of. As a vehicle for expressing yourself, its is great as a collection of images, but step back an edit so that you are clear what you are saying, and ensure that it is the message your want to convey. Once you have edited, do so again…. because open spaces to allow your important items to breathe in the air is more powerful than the cluttered look .

Let’s be honest, you haven’t read a lot of the books on your shelf. Many you collected in college and grad school, as evidenced by the orange “used” sticker on the spine. Others are gifts, amazon purchases, and “must reads” from colleagues, all gotten with the best of intentions, but now they sit on the shelf unopened and unloved. If your background is a bookshelf, consider the books shown and edit them down to the ones that actually have some meaning to you, or convey a message to your patients.

Our lives are a collection of memories and experiences. We gather them and hold them dear. Occasionally we identify something to take with us along our journey, a tangible memory to trigger our sensor experience. But while our collection of ironic beer cozies are still a hit with our college friends, our patients may have a decidedly different point of view. Scan all the items that may appear in the frame. Are they innocuous? Bland enough to create visual interest, but not a distraction of unanswered questions? We recognize the joy of personalizing a space, the you may want to reconsider the bobble-head Mr.Met.

I once saw a therapist that was covered in plants. She sat in her chair with her bookshelf behind her, peering out through dense jungle growth. Braids of hostas vines flowed down her shoulders to the floor. A birds-nest of succulents balanced on her head. While in person this created a peaceful “mother earth” ambiance, virtually it was too psychedelic to ignore and distracted from the session. We all like green, but we like it clean. Vegetation is a natural relaxant, calming the senses and projecting a feeling of calm. If you choose to have vegetation within your frame, ensure that it is controlled, spaced, watered, full, and individualized.

We all know your child is gifted…. and their artwork shows it. Yes, we agree it could be hung in a museum and really doesn’t look that much different than a Pollock. But let’s be honest, our eyes don’t deceive us, and our patients know it’s not really museum quality. So be aware of the artwork that we hang or display. Typically in an office/waiting room, our artwork is secondary as we pass it by. But if it exists within the virtual frame, we need to be aware of its visual impact. Carefully chosen pieces should be easy on the eyes, and almost easy to ignore. Neutral colors is key. If they spend a session wondering if that is a real Chagall behind you, or distracted by the blinding Dan Flavin, you should reconsider.

You already know this….. but don’t show them. Scan one more to make sure that anything overly personal isn’t exposed.

Surprisingly windows create a very challenging background. Too much light and your face sits in shadow. Often the background is blown out and unreadable. Otherwise if the background is legible, what does it say about you? Manicured yard? Ocean view? Parisian skyline? Sickly, under watered plants on a rusty fire-escape overlooking the shared airshaft? Between the lighting, the judgement, and the unknowns of the shirtless neighbor looking out their window, carefully consider it, but maybe just consider skipping it. If you do love the windowed background, shear curtains create a peaceful and sophisticated look while managing to diffuse the light.