Before Covid-19 video calls at work were the exception, not the rule. The pandemic reversed this on a grand scale and even calls about small things have defaulted to video. What this preoccupation with vision misses is that sometimes it is better to hear pe ople than to see them.
In many workplaces an assumption has developed that co-workers can only connect properly if they have eyes on each other. New research from the Tepper business school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh knocks that on the head.
It shows that voice-only calls can be more effective when it comes to task-oriented or problem-solving conversations and that video conferencing can get in the way of collective intelligence – or the ability of groups to solve problems. Visual cues were shown to have no effect on collective intelligence and teams operating without them demonstrated higher collective intelligence.
The research also indicates that contributions tend to be uneven in video exchanges whereas participation is more equal in voice-only calls. With voice alone, people are much better at what researchers call “vocal synchrony” or the process of recognising when someone had finished making their point and taking turns to contribute.
"Our findings call into question the necessity of video support and show that when it comes to producing results in a variety of cognitive tasks, it seems that audio cues alone promote better results than a mix of audio and video," Dr Maria Tomprou, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour and theory at the Tepper School of Business told The Irish Times.
“In combined voice/video calls, vocal-cue synchrony fails to be reached and speaking turns also become more unequal so we may have more overlaps or more dominating speakers. This phenomenon negatively affects the team’s collective intelligence and impacts its performance.”
Tomprou adds that, with voice-only calls, there are natural pauses that allow people to focus more on content while subtleties, such as vocal tone, are easier to pick up without video.
“I think, with video conferencing, there is too much happening including the paradox of monitoring cues about ourselves, something we do not do in our normal lives,” she says. “It’s like talking to the mirror and to others at the same time. I think when teams need to collaborate efficiently to achieve their tasks, having the cameras always on just overwhelms people’s cognitive capacity.”
Video fatigue is also having an impact on people's mental health and research from Stanford University shows that the phenomenon is worse for women. Researchers think this is because video exacerbates pre-existing problems with gender dynamics in group settings and women feel more pressure to look good on camera than men.
Growing evidence that video overload can be harmful is leading some organisations to limit its use.
Jane Fraser, chief executive of Citi, which employs more than 200,000 people, has banned video calls on Fridays in an effort to combat the problem. "After listening to colleagues around the world, it became apparent we need to combat the 'Zoom fatigue' that many of us feel," she told employees in a blog post.
Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean at UCD's Lochlann Quinn School of Business, says people should be given the choice to be camera on or camera off and that choosing off should not be interpreted as disinterest.
“The challenge is that it is hard not to do this. It feels a bit like having a conversation with someone with their back to you. Zoom is tiring so the key is to talk about how people feel about the cameras and agreeing an approach every time.”
‘Just not fun’
Star crossed lovers apart, few of us stare at each other at close range for long periods which is why video makes us edgy. Prof Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's virtual human interaction lab, goes a step further. He describes the process as "unnatural and just not fun" and believes Zoom fatigue may be attributed to nonverbal overload.
Bailenson has identified four characteristics of prolonged video chats that may contribute to such fatigue. The first is excessive amounts of intense close-up eye contact. In a “normal” meeting people get relief as they are doing other things such as looking around or taking notes.
Additionally, with some monitors people’s faces are too big. This invades our personal space and invites our brains to interpret it as a threat or invitation to mate.
Another consequence of overexposure to video is that we simply get tired looking at ourselves. We become hypercritical of our looks and this can trigger a negative emotional response. (Bailenson suggests overcoming this by using the hide self-view button.)
Video also calls for people to sit still for long periods whereas humans are naturally built to move and, lastly, cognitive load soars with video calls.
“You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the centre of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate,” Bailenson says.
It is also easy to confuse gestures on video that would be obvious in person, he adds, and even the way we talk demands more energy. Because we tend to speak louder, this requires more of a concerted effort and that can add up over a day.