SINGAPORE - Every Monday morning since March, I look forward to scrutinising my colleagues' living quarters through a laptop.
Sometimes, I get a glimpse of someone's well-stocked pantry or a peek into their bedroom. Our senior correspondent Chantal Sajan always has a perfectly placed house plant in view, and resident film buff John Lui looks like he may be crushed any time by the storeroom shelves behind him.
As the world goes into lockdown, one of the new normals of life is having how you are perceived daily condensed into a little box on screen.
Businesses and schools have been using video conferencing services like Zoom and Google Hangouts Meet to replace face time. Despite a security blip, Zoom's chief executive officer Eric Yuan said in a blog post that the company reached more than 200 million people a day in March - up from around 10 million in December 2019.
But presenting yourself through a rectangle on the Internet can be an aesthetic affair too. Take it from the people who have built careers on curating an image of themselves online: influencers.
Full-time beauty influencer Sahur Saleim, 22, has been filming beauty tutorials since 2015, when she was still in school. Scrolling through her Instagram page (@sahursart), now 323,000 followers strong, you would never guess that some of the professional videos are filmed in a corner of a spare room in her home.
"My entire area is super messy with a lot of make-up items - I have over 100 eyeshadow palettes. The rest of my house is actually very clean, because everyone I live with is super tidy," says Ms Saleim, who lives in a condominium apartment with four other family members and a helper.
Working as a professional make-up artist on the side, she started doing paid content as an influencer in 2018. She filmed out of an office space for a few months last year, but returned to working from home in January this year for social distancing purposes.
She films against a plain white wall using natural sunlight. But since her family started working from home too, she has taken to filming at midnight with two studio lights, after everyone has gone to bed.
"If I'm filming while they're awake, I can hear them laughing and making jokes in the back of the audio," she says. "And when they're awake, I don't feel very motivated to work, because I want to spend time with them."
Ms Yeoh Mong Chin, 27, also has to film around family members for her social media content. The beauty and lifestyle influencer, who goes by @mongabong on Instagram and YouTube, typically films out of a studio she rents, with the help of a full-time employee and two interns.
Now, with the circuit breaker measures in effect, she has been filming in her bedroom at her in-laws' home.
It is a surreal return to 2016 when she started out, making videos in her parents' house. For a year, the accounting major from Singapore Management University filmed in the living room, with a white bedsheet draped over a clothing pole behind her as a makeshift backdrop.
These days, she films with just a tripod on her bed. Shifting to more stay-home content, she has been making vlogs that bring viewers around the house. It looks less polished, but works in these uncertain times.
"People do enjoy seeing how we're filming from our own house," she says.
With just a rectangle on screen, details down to what your backdrop looks like could make or break a professional impression. Workers with regular video calls can consider styling up their small but crucial corners.
Interior designer and founder of Sync Interior Eric Chua, 42, recommends parking yourself in an area with a design element like wallpaper, a feature wall, curtains or blinds. A study room is best, but the living room or dining area can also work if kept clean and tidy.
"Try to avoid the kitchen due to the high traffic flow and mirrors in the backdrop to avoid distraction," adds Mr Chua, who works on a high table at his balcony and rolls down the blinds as a backdrop during video calls.
Or consider creating your own nook with a few choice furniture pieces. For a simple backdrop, Mr Chua recommends easily movable furniture like an armchair, plants, coffee table and standing lamp.
When filming in the studio, Ms Yeoh likes to style up the plain white backdrop with simple props like plants, frames, ladders, and high stools in white or wood tones.
Ms Saleim also favours a white background as it makes it easier for her to match clothing and make-up when filming. With her set-up directly across a large window, she skips using a backlight, "so it looks professional enough without looking too staged".
"Adding some kind of lifestyle element to it makes it look more homely - a shelf of photo frames, some flowers or a vase. For me, I sometimes have make-up brushes in view, which adds some normalcy to the content," she adds.
BEST FACE FORWARD
Besides a presentable workspace, a splash of make-up in the morning can do wonders for your productivity at home, plus prepare you for any video calls in the day ahead, say the influencers.
Ms Yeoh wears make-up at home every day - partly to film, but also because it makes her feel more productive. "The best thing is I don't touch my face throughout the day. With makeup, you just automatically won't because you don't want to smudge it," she adds.
The lazy or time-strapped can try some tinted moisturiser or sunblock, she advises. "Go with what you might normally wear to the office; what your colleagues have seen. At least have some lipstick - a little colour on your lips will make it look like you put in effort."
Drawing from her make-up artist experience, Ms Saleim suggests three key products to "wake the face up": a little bit of concealer under the eyes to look less tired, blush on the cheeks to look fresh, and mascara to open up the eyes.
"I know a lot of people prefer eyeliner to mascara, but eyeliner takes too long and is too easy to mess up. (These three items) will make you look pulled together but in a very natural way that is achievable in five minutes."
And for those who still prefer to skip the make-up, you can cheat with easy lighting and angling hacks.
Sit somewhere with light behind the camera directly in front of your face, says Ms Saleim.
"You want the light to be hitting you right on the nose so your face is evenly lit. Place it at forehead level or a little lower and tilt it down, so the light is coming from above. It gives a shadow at the bottom of your face, which makes your face look smaller and covers double chins," she adds.
Both Ms Saleim and Ms Yeoh swear by ring lights, available in smaller clip-on versions, to achieve the effect. Otherwise, a lamp with white or cool light works too.
To replicate how studio shoots use a board to bounce light, Ms Yeoh recommends placing a piece of white paper below your chin, to bounce the light onto your face and fill awkward shadows. Just never sit with a light directly above your head, she warns.
Most importantly, give yourself time to wake up and get into the right frame of mind before a call, says the bubbly Ms Yeoh. "I usually set aside at least half an hour before turning on the camera. Don't just roll out of bed and get your day going."
PRESENTING YOURSELF ONLINE
Got the jitters when presenting in an on-camera meeting? The pros share some tips.
#1 Don't overthink it
Her videos may reach tens of thousands of viewers on the Internet, but "it's just me" when filming, says Ms Saleim, who has gotten used to talking to herself. It helps to keep someone in your head - a colleague or friend - and adjust yourself in the way you would talk to them.
"When I film videos by myself in the middle of the night, I pretend I'm talking to my best friend, so I feel more calm and can articulate what I want to say without feeling flustered."
#2 Make notes of what you need to say
Save yourself the awkwardness of blanking on camera and jot down what you need to say in point form first, advises Ms Yeoh.
"People can't really see you referring to notes off-camera. And keep it short and sweet, as people's attention spans are generally shorter online."
#3 Have a little mirror next to your computer
"You can't always see what's happening on the little screen of yourself in the meeting," Ms Saleim points out.
Having a mirror to the side can help you see if you have something smudged on your face and make you more conscious of how you are sitting.
She adds: "You can kind of zone out and lose track of what your resting expression is. I've noticed sometimes when I edit my footage, my entire face looks really blank."