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What Scientists Know About Virtual Meetings

Business leaders around the world struggled to keep their organizations alive during the economic shutdown that impacted at least half of all existing commercial ventures, and universally shuttered schools and government offices, as the coronavirus swept across entire continents. Life as we know it ground to a halt but all are thankful for the many technological advancements that have been developed over the years. Technology in various formats has provided much-needed lifelines for stumbling enterprises searching to regain their footing.

Videoconference technology, once a relative wallflower used mostly in post-secondary school distance learning programs, leapt to the forefront as the belle of the ball. Businesses, schools and municipal leaders rushed to embrace the reliable and inexpensive virtual face-to-face communication tool that allowed quarantining office workers and government leaders to regroup and continue operating.

Teachers adapted their classroom lessons to virtual instruction. Wedding planners offered virtual ceremony options to couples determined to marry on their preferred date and were undeterred by the prospect of welcoming guests who would witness the big day on home computer screens or mobile devices.

In short order, however, it became clear that while the availability of virtual communication technology is a blessing, it is not the equal of face-to-face interaction. Videoconference meetings and classroom lessons, while appealing in ways too numerous to list, nevertheless come with noticeable drawbacks. 

Meeting participants and others invariably notice that virtual conversations are often stilted. The slight delay in video signals that is integral to the technology disrupts the natural rhythm of conversation. Meeting participants will attempt to compensate for unnatural pauses that would cause us to talk over one another by waiting, usually a little too long, to respond. Synchrony, the unconscious call and response speaking pattern we lapse into when communicating face-to-face, is broken.

Synchrony also leads us to unconsciously mimic the body language and posture of the person we’re speaking with. We tend to smile when we receive visual cues that our conversation partner will respond favorably if we do, or we’ll put on a serious facial expression when people in the room look worried or upset.

Research shows that our ability to unintentionally yet accurately predict our conversation partner’s emotional state is crucial to feeling connected. When engaging in virtual communication many facial expressions—-the sparkle or cloud in the eyes, the subtle posture changes or hand gestures—-are obscured. During virtual meetings, it becomes difficult to consistently predict and validate the nonverbal cues of other participants. We may begin to feel awkward, or even alienated.

“People start to synchronize their laughter and facial expressions over time,” says Paula Niedenthal, PhD, a psychologist and expert in the science of emotion at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “That’s really useful because it helps us predict what’s coming next,” she notes.

Scientists who study human perception have discovered that virtual meetings interfere with normal eye contact and especially impact how often and how long speakers and listeners look at one other. Isabelle Mareschal, PhD, Psychology Department Chair at Queen Mary University in London, and her colleagues at their visual perception laboratory, asked a group of study subjects to watch a video of a human face that turned to look directly at them. The study subjects initially found the gaze enjoyable but after as little as three seconds, most found the gaze to be unsettling. 

Now consider the protocol at a virtual meeting—- we are expected to maintain unbroken eye contact with the speaker or risk being considered inattentive, if not rude. The problem is that our brain is uncomfortable with this practice. No wonder we find more than one Zoom per day to be draining.

Andrew S. Franklin, PhD, psychologist at Norfolk State University in Virginia, feels the first downside of Zoom is that the platform is programmed to continually show the user an image of him/herself. “So, you’re trying to get out of the habit of staring at yourself,” he says. That discomfort, or fascination, breaks the participant’s attention, drawing it away from the speaker and disrupting the transmission of facial and body language cues one might otherwise pick up. Worse, the Brady Bunch Zoom meeting line-up, whether shown in a horizontal or vertical configuration on your device, brings in too many pairs of eyes for viewers to confront. It’s uncomfortable.

Probably the most formidable obstacle of virtual communication is the difficulty of developing trust when doing business. It’s not easy to build bonds, to truly get to know someone and develop lasting rapport in an online encounter, despite the ability to see who one is talking to. Daniel Nguyen, PhD, a scientist and director at the global consulting firm Accenture Laboratory in Shenzhen, China said his research found that, “In a videoconferencing situation, trust is quite fragile,” and further, “Trust is diminished overall.”

Nguyen and his team at the Accenture Lab investigated how people bonded (or not) while in virtual meetings. He and his team divided experiment subjects into pairs: some conversing pairs used a video set-up that showed only faces; another pairing set-up displayed face and upper body; and the third conversation pairing was an in-person chat. As revealed in observations, in-person pairs developed the strongest bonds. Moreover, the video set-up that revealed both face and torso resulted in bonding that was fully twice that of the face only set-up. 

Based on the pair bonding observations, Nguyen now prefers the vertical screen view over the horizontal screen view for virtual meeting participants because the former showcases more of the body and less background scenery. He and his co-authors recommend sitting a few feet away from the keyboard when in a virtual meeting, so that more of upper body will be visible.

Providing virtual meeting colleagues with a more expansive view of yourself helps them to achieve synchrony with you and the potential for mutual bonding will be enhanced. Nguyen and colleagues also provided suggestions for your virtual meeting vocal style. “Ramp up the words that you’re saying,” he advised, “and exaggerate the way you say it.”

Ben Waber, President and co-founder of Humanyze, a company that creates software that allows organizations to map internal communications, understands very well how employees communicate and how their communication correlates to their company’s health.

Waber suspects that in the long run, a company’s culture and creativity risk declining in a heavily remote-working structure. Employees can’t get to know one another as well when they don’t regularly interact face-to-face. He predicts that profitable companies will initially continue to be profitable despite their significant dependence on virtual communication but damage will become evident a year or two down the line, when the quality of new ideas become less bold and innovative. He predicts, “I think we’re going to see this general degradation of the health of organizations.” 

Thanks for reading,

About the author

Kim L. Clark

Kim L. Clark is the founder of Polished Professionals Boston, a business strategy and marketing consultancy. She is also an adviser to small business owners and develops workshops and classes that provide instruction in writing business plans. Kim has lectured at the Lesley University Seminars, the Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

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