Since the pandemic hit, videoconferencing has become the de facto way many of us interact with each other online for work. There’s a prevailing assumption in many workplaces that our co-workers need to see our face for us to connect and listen to each other best.
But not so fast. This meeting philosophy is up against a growing body of newer research that finds video meetings are actually less effective than voice-only calls for group discussions.
Here’s what you need to know:
Why face-to-face meetings are not always best for getting problems solved
In a March PLoS One study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, got 99 pairs of individuals from a university to complete six tasks around generating, deciding, and executing ideas, with and without access to video to each other. Across each test, the researchers found that video access had no impact on group intelligence, which they defined as “the ability of a group to solve a wide range of problems.”
“The researchers concluded that their findings call into question the necessity of video.”
The researchers found that we actually rely more on audio cues than visual cues when it comes to moving a conversation forward productively. Video compromised the ability for study participants to pick up on tone and rhythm of speech. The pairs who were using video and audio had more lopsided contributions to conversation, while pairs who had only audio were better at speaking in turn and contributing equally to conversations. The researchers concluded that their findings call into question the necessity of video.
“Limited access to video may promote better communication and social interaction during collaborative problem solving, as there are fewer stimuli to distract collaborators,” the study states.
You’ve likely experienced this in a Zoom meeting where one colleague is steamrolling over everyone else, unaware that they are dominating the conversation. But when you can only rely on a voice for communication, the silence on the other side can be more noticeable, and you are more likely to not talk over each other, and wait to hear each other’s thoughts.
This research aligns with a separate 2017 study that found U.S. participants could more accurately guess their conversation partner’s emotions when the discussion was voice-only. This finding underscores that vocal cues are more critical to helping us understand emotions than facial cues.
In his Twitter analysis of both studies, organizational psychologist Adam Grant said his takeaway is that we’re better at reading emotions and are more in sync in voice-only calls. “The most underused tech of 2021: phones,” he said. “Not every meeting needs to have cameras on.”
Try out a voice-only call day at work
Beyond the communication advantages, keeping your camera off also has advantages for well-being. The “Zoom fatigue” of being stuck behind a camera all day is a well-known phenomenon by this point.
As a result, accounting firm KPMG recently designated Fridays as “camera free” days for work meetings. By committing to voice-only meetings every Friday, the firm hopes to provide a more relaxed transition into the weekend and to reduce the stress of constantly being tied to a desk to appear on camera.
“I’ve found it to be a great way to clear my head and even get a new perspective on things. The new enhancement gives our people the opportunity to step away from their desk and do walking meetings or meetings on the move,” Darren Burton, chief human resources officer for KPMG, told HuffPost. He said early feedback to the new policy has been very positive, and he expects the policy to continue to some degree.
Voice-only meetings can be a win-win for employees who get a break from being on camera, and for employers who get more attentive meeting participants. It goes to show: Companies don’t have to stick to the same old way of doing work meetings on a Zoom video call just because it’s how they have always done it. Sometimes, less technology comes with more benefits. Maybe your team’s next videoconference can just be a phone call.