Despite decades of study on the benefits of video over audio-only communications, many new video users have a negative view of videoconferencing. While this opinion appears to be in the minority based on user-satisfaction polls, there is a contingent of reluctant new video users. I came across a recent article, “Video Conferencing Is the Worst“, which expressed the sentiments of one such user (Slate Associate Editor, L.V. Anderson). While many of us take the productivity, engagement and interactivity value of video over audio for granted at this point, some users are still not seeing it. The fact that some new users see the downsides of video without recognizing the benefits is a messaging problem for the video industry.
I think it is important for us to understand this negative perspective of videoconferencing, so let’s take a closer look at this article. My goal isn’t to debunk the author. Her feelings on the value of video are perfectly valid for a new user. My goal is to offer some explanation for why those who have used video for a long time (such as myself) might see things differently.
Of course videoconferencing has advantages and disadvantages compared to in-person meetings and phone calls. For example, video can be more convenient than meeting in person, and more engaging than meeting over the phone. However, the Slate article appears to only compare video to audio in areas like convenience and to in person meetings in areas like engagement. This allows it to reach the conclusion that:
“Video conferencing combines the worst aspects of all other methods of communication.”
This is like saying that a bicycle isn’t as fast as a car and isn’t as affordable as walking, so therefore it combines the worst aspects of all other methods of travel. A bicycle is actually at a nice place in between the speed of the car and the convenience of walking. Just as video is at a nice place between the engagement of in person meetings and the convenience of the phone. When you need a car, you need a car, but a bicycle is often a nice upgrade from a walk. Similarly, when you need to meet in person, you meet in person, but video is often a nice upgrade from the phone.
The article then discusses how video counteracts the benefits of working at home. I think, when taken in perspective, video only really affects a few of these benefits and only requires a few reasonable changes in adjustment.
“With video conferencing, telecommuters can no longer focus exclusively on their work—they have to spruce up their environment and their apparel.”
Sure, I can see how this is a downside to video if you want to work at home in your pajamas. However, you don’t need to clean your entire house to be on video. It generally isn’t too difficult to position yourself and your laptop or webcam so that a clean wall is behind you. In regards to apparel, if you really want to dress casual when you work at home, you can try to schedule a few meeting-free days on your calendar. At least you can wear pajama bottoms on video, so it’s still better than meeting in person.
The advantages of working at home include reducing commute time/expense, flexible work schedules allowing more productivity, greater quality of life, freedom to take care of personal tasks during work hours, etc. None of that is negatively affected by videoconferencing in any way. Having to shave or put on makeup for video may be a slight buzzkill, but it doesn’t really counteract these important benefits of working at home.
The article then discusses how videoconferencing causes users to feel extremely self-conscious, which can be distracting.
“Video conferencing preys on our vanity and distracts us with horrifying images of our own blemished, asymmetrical faces.”
With most video solutions, you don’t see a full sized self-image once the meeting starts. The person on the other end of the video call should be on your screen, not you. There might be a small PiP/window with your self-image, which you can often turn off if you find it distracting. Arguably, the small self view hides any blemishes and should make you feel attractive and confident. Seriously though, this is something that regular users get used to and do not see as a problem. If new users are put off by the self view, then perhaps video vendors should take this into account and make it smaller, or hide it better, for new users.
Next the article explains how working on video allows for too many distractions.
“It is impossible not to read your email, type a quick note to your colleague, and surf the web while you’re on a video conference call, because (assuming you’re using the webcam on your laptop or desktop) you’re already staring at a screen with infinite possible windows. Of course, it’s possible to multitask when you’re on a traditional, audio-only conference call, too—but when you’re on the phone you can close your computer.”
I believe people are far more likely to multitask when on the phone than when on video. First of all, it is very unlikely for a worker to shut their computer to focus on a phone call. If it is a working session you probably need your computer open so you can access project materials. Even if it is a status meeting you might need to take notes, or add something to your calendar. The more realistic scenario is for people to sit at their computer when they are on the phone and multitask. I find myself struggling to stay focused during phone meetings, my eyes wander and I start multitasking. During video calls you have to stay focused. It is very obvious to other people in the call if you start checking your email and if you have a good team they will call you on it. This is a big part of why video calls tend to be more efficient and productive than audio-only calls.
“Proponents say it gives participants more visual cues than a phone conversation, allowing them to respond to their colleagues’ facial expressions and body language. But the facial expressions and body language transmitted during a video meeting are so stilted and self-conscious that they don’t convey much useful information at all.”
This is clearly a new user problem. After a few calls you get comfortable on video. At that point the information conveyed by body language becomes very useful, even if it is often only shoulders and up.
Even worse, true eye contact is impossible, since you have to look at the camera in order to appear to your colleagues like you’re looking at them.
On this point we are in total agreement. It’s inexcusable that the eye contact problem has not been fixed after all these years. It does negatively impact video meetings and new users are right to feel put off by it. Nevertheless, I still feel more focused and productive in video meetings than on the phone.
“But when in-person meetings aren’t possible, I’d choose a good, old-fashioned phone call over a live video stream almost every time. As long as we’re in different places, I’d rather focus on what people have to say than on how we all look.”
If you want to focus on what someone is saying, you really need to be looking at them while they speak. Only 7% of information when we speak is conveyed by the words themselves. 55% is through body language and the rest is tone of voice.
Once you get over the initial “newness” of video it becomes as comfortable as meeting with someone in person. While it doesn’t have quite as much engagement and impact as an in person meeting, it far exceeds what you get over the phone. Until we get fully used to it, we may still find it quicker and easier to use the phone to get a quick answer. But for a real back and forth meeting, the benefits of video far outweigh the downsides. It may be a buzzkill to realize you need to clean up for your afternoon video call, but at least you got to work all morning in your pajamas, and you still didn’t have to commute.