All posts by David Tate

Show Your Face: The complex psychology of video chat, Part 2

Show Your Face: The complex psychology of video chat, Part 2

In Part 1 we discussed the objections to using your video camera in a remote job, and how, for some, video chat can feel like too much of a burden, come across as unprofessional, or simply offer less than its promised communication value. Let’s turn our attention to the upsides of video chat for a remote team – why should we push through these challenges and make use of this tool?

Upsides of Video

Video conferencing allows a personal feel and increases accountability. Establishing trusting relationships with your coworkers – inside jokes, empathy, understanding of who they are as people – is easier when they are more than a voice and an email address. You can’t tell if anyone has grinned at your corny joke or gotten excited about your project pitch with just audio, but video communicates these other dimensions almost as well as being in person.


Showing your face also improves your honor at keeping your word. Telling your manager that “it will be done by Tuesday” over email is different than saying it to them while looking them in the eye. The subtle body language observed over video calls is irreplaceable as well. “Sure, he says it will be done by Tuesday, but he looks unsure, perhaps I should ask another question?”

Improved Meeting Mechanics

At this point, everyone knows that in-person meetings can be an effective way to not get anything done. The natural human tendencies are:

– When in doubt about something, “get everyone in the room” instead of figuring it out yourself.
– Use the entire period allotted for the meeting, filling up any dead space with small talk or repetition.
– Let extroverts dominate the meetings, talking over meeker employees.

Video meetings are different that in-person meetings because they reduce small talk and tendency to avoid being rude. It is very hard to have 5 minutes of small talk in a video meeting with ten other people staring at you, and on the other end of the meeting, there are many ways to warn the moderator that the time is wrapping up, or that you have to leave. In effect, a video meeting is a more barebones form of meeting in which you don’t have to jump through social hoops to start or stop.

Video meetings are also a compromise between in-person meetings – in which it is rude to multi-task – and audio-only conference calls in which nobody can tell if you put your phone on mute and just work away on other things. You might check your email, play Crossy Road, or simply keep working during a phone conference call but you won’t do any of those things if everyone can see your face. Meetings are expensive operations, so they should feel expensive to discourage people from creating them without a true need, but video meeting offers a nice social mechanism if a meeting is not a good use of your time: you post a message to the chat saying so and leave, or subtly multi-task.

Dealing with Personalities

The previous point is a small piece of a larger issue: personality is normalized somewhat over a video chat. We have all seen meetings in which the loudest and most talkative person dominates the discussion over the more shy attendees. In some cases, this dynamic can simply transfer to video chat, but in many cases, this dynamic goes down over time. Everyone is sitting in their own comfortable environment for a video chat, and their confidence is up. Some that are shy in a large conference room do not feel this sitting at home and simply seeing larger personalities as little boxes on screen. Video chat can equalize, allowing you to hear all voices on the team.

Moving Forward

Video conferencing is powerful, but experienced remote workers might object to the daily use of video because they want to be in control of their schedule and appearance. Other workers might not like replacing existing meetings with video meeting because they feel that video conferencing is casual or makes them appear unprofessional. The solution to overcoming these challenges is direct and relies on personal empathy and effort: ask people why they don’t want to turn on their camera and explain the benefits of remote video. The overall benefits of working from home greatly outweigh any downsides of the use of video.

Show Your Face: The complex psychology of video chat

Show Your Face: The complex psychology of video chat

With high-quality video chat available to everyone with a mobile phone we find ourselves in a spectacular time for remote communication, one that ten years ago would seem like science fiction. Five people can chat, looking at each other’s faces, in real time from thousands of miles away – for free. Skype, Hangouts, Zoom, Facetime, and even the Android built-in phone interface all provide free good-enough solutions and paid high-quality solutions for video presence.

It would seem that with the rise of remote work this technology would allow direct transfer of traditional meetings to video meetings. But it isn’t this simple. Video chat has not replaced in-person chat because it works just differently enough to cause different emotional reactions. As with all change, and all new technology, their adoption faces psychological barriers.

Friction with Video

The most common objections are simple: video cameras are hard to setup, and the quality is not always as magical as you might imagine. Because the video and audio quality rely on your Internet connection, quality can dramatically alter during a conference call, making it hard to adjust to slight delays, frozen screens, and garbled words. Because video calls are good enough we feel these errors acutely, making us uncomfortable and frustrated. Many people simply prefer talking on the phone where we are all aware of the protocols in place; the slight differences in rhythms throw us off over video.


Another objection is that video usage is “unprofessional.” Digging a little deeper into what this means, this appears to be a cover for other complex issues.

Many workers use video calling in their personal lives or were first exposed to it in a social context. They have a strong association with casual chatting with friends or having their kids talk to their grandparents. This first impression is hard to shake – just ask Google Apps which has faced a similar problem: many people used addresses for personal use and therefore using it for business feels too casual.

We are just now at the point where software that allowed for video sharing appears professional. The old guard of conference calls tools, such as GoToMeeting, feel professional but have not kept up with the quality of more casual tools like Hangouts and Facetime. The third generation of tools, such as Zoom and JoinMe, offer professional features like shared whiteboards, audio recording, and proper mute functionality. These tools are easier to use as they feel like “work tools.”

Unprofessional is also a code word for something else: the appearance of professionalism. Staring at your face during an entire meeting is not fun and feels casual. There is a reason a typical office conference room doesn’t have mirrors on the walls. Besides, the default angle of an open laptop makes most people look like they are looking at a fun house mirror.

And for many distributed teams it is easier to imagine the other parties on the call in suits if you can’t see that they aren’t. We would rather have the feeling of strict professionalism than seeing that we are all working, but wearing t-shirts.

Privacy and Power

When you work from home, the power dynamic between you and your employer shifts in your direction. Instead of them making you wear certain clothes, drive to an office of their choosing, and be present based on their schedule, you now are responsible for your work and your work environment only. Because of this remote workers feel a freedom and empowerment with their working schedule that can block being open to a video chat throughout the day.

If I’m in charge of my schedule, then I can spend the early morning at Starbucks just thinking with a notebook, but if you make me dial into a video call, you are removing some of this creative freedom. Likewise, I can no longer go to the gym during lunch if an early afternoon video call won’t allow me time to get back in time and take a shower. These seem like small issues, but the requirement of *being presentable* shifts the power dynamic back to appearances and away from raw work output. Some remote workers, sensitive as we are to this relationship (after all, this is why we are working this way), don’t think it is worth the benefits.

We must also remember that people who work from home are in a different privacy landscape that those in an office. I might work best with a messy office or in an ugly sweatshirt, and maybe I don’t want to share that I’m currently in my car picking up my kids from school. Perhaps my home office is off to the side of an open floor plan, and simply having a camera in my home feels like an invasion of privacy.

Wrapping Up

If video chat has so many downsides then why are there so many companies working to improve it, and why does every modern device come with a high-quality webcam built-in? Because despite these downsides video chat is still the best way to get to know someone remotely, to feel connected to someone from afar, and to build rapport between coworkers. In the next post we will list some of the other benefits of video chat for remote work, and how to overcome some of the downsides we detailed here.

Solving Communication Problems on Your Remote Team

Solving Communication Problems on Your Remote Team

Communication is one of the first-order problems of distributed work. Everyone has heard of it and points to it at the top of the scoreboard of issues with remote work arrangements; even those who have never tried working in this way fear drifting out of touch with their team.

If we are honest, we all know that it isn’t as if communication within a traditional office is automatically wonderful and efficient. Perhaps we are just used to having constant status meetings and project managers who wander around “syncing up” with workers. A co-located team has these built-in compensation mechanisms, and a remote team doesn’t.

Without the arguably poor and crude move of “get everybody in a room,” remote teams are left to develop new methods to stay in touch and coordinate work. As a manager and individual contributor, there are methods that can make a distributed team even more effective than a large team working within smell-distance of each other. Our thinking just needs to change, and our first change is to move away from transient verbal communication and start writing it down.

Sync vs. Async Communication

Before we do that, we need to understand why it is important to write stuff down. A co-located team has synchronous time – time in which you can gather everyone, stop them from working, to all focus on the same thing – in surplus. You can easily coordinate schedules and “grab people” for quick chats. A manager can walk around spreading a message for each person to help people coordinate, and there is a general expectation that people show up for any meeting that is called. I won’t go into why meetings might be an inefficient way to coordinate work, but I’ll take one stab at it: have you ever been in a meeting in which it wasn’t a heated discussion? If so, you have been to an inefficient meeting.

A remote team does not work like this; these teams trend more towards Results Only Work Environments (R.O.W.E), and additionally might have workers from different time zones. This means that synchronous time is rarer and must be used with extreme care. Synchronous time should be used for the much rarer situations where real-time collaboration is actually needed, and the rest of work should be coordinated online asynchronously.

The ideal mix for remote work is situational, but intense collaboration followed by large blocks of time for concentrated, uninterrupted work is a worthy goal in most configurations. Writing is the simplest method to allow for archiving the decision-making, status, and issues with work for async coordination.

Write it Down or Forget It

When you work in the same building you might do some documentation for your future self, or for training other people – outside of email you probably don’t do a lot of “current events” style writing. But a single source of truth for current status information, project documentation, and work items as they progress through whatever process you have in place is required for a remote team.

To see the difference let’s imagine that we awake for our work day and half of our team has already had the majority of their work day. We can’t have a daily standup meeting where everyone gathers together during preferred work hours, so I need to read and respond to what happened on the project while I wasn’t working, and later my coworkers need to read and respond to what I’m planning on doing for the day and how it goes. I’m essentially journaling my day and making clear notes on obstacles, opinions, or solutions that I’m coming up with. The manner in which you do this might need to change based on what type of work you do, but at a minimum, it should include the following:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What do you plan to do today?
  • What obstacles are blocking you?

This information can be tracked in a tool like Basecamp or iDoneThis, and it provides great information to multiple audiences:

  • Coworkers can make sure that you aren’t planning on doing the same thing they are (or have done it already!)
  • Managers can help resolve obstacles, and notice trends in the difference between what their people plan to do versus actually do over time.

Single Source of Truth for Task Status

In addition to this, you need to ramp up your documentation of actual work status. Whatever ticketing system you use to manage work needs to be current every day, every hour, every minute. This replaces some of the status ceremonies that you see in a co-located team.

If probably have one of these systems already but update it at only a high level. It might be a work-tracking system like GitHub issues, Asana, Todoist, Workflowy, your custom support system, or your CRM or (what feels like literally) thousands of other options. A meaningful thought experiment to see if you are documenting in enough detail is simply how well your paper trail prevents people from interrupting to ask about how work is going. “It’s going well, I wrote it all down already” should be your answer.

Learn to Write

All of these methods mean that you might need to level-up your skills with the written word. Your bubbling personality will have to stay on hold for a bit (and saved for video chats discussed below) while you work on communicating clearly your ideas, feedback, and objections clearly and concisely.

The 5-minute way to improve your writing:

  • Read more clear, concise language. Trade magazines are a good start,  and newspapers also have a gift for saying much with little space.
  • Before you send something over a page, see if you can decrease its size by 20%. You will be surprised by how often this leads to clearer thinking and more impactful writing.
  • Practice: There are quality classes that you can take online, such as Gotham Writers Business Writing, but re-reading everything you write can help. From comments to emails,  see how well you get your point into others heads – is there confusion or follow-up?

Time to Sync: Video and Chat

Even if you write everything down as you work, there will always be times when you need to coordinate in real-time to make a decision or clarify an issue. Real-time coordination is typically required at the beginning of projects: “What are we going to work on?” and end: “Hey guys why isn’t it working?”

The tools for real-time collaboration have improved considerably in the last few years. Audio-only conference calls between people sitting in offices from fifteen-pound desk phones feel ancient now – we look each other in the eyes on video chat from our phones in airports and coffee shops across thousands of miles. To improve communication for conference calls, I’d recommend using video tools such as Skype, Hangouts, Slack video, or Zoom and encourage people to turn on their cameras and require single-tasking in the meeting. Although you do need to allow for some flexibility with personal space for camera usage, it is a professional requirement that people pay attention during these rare real-time sessions.

But before we ask everyone to get camera-ready we have another tool that we can use for real-time discussion: chat systems. Our options here are also powerful and growing. Slack, Hipchat, Google Chat, there are many options here. Defining what tool your organization uses is less important than how it uses it: if you use a tool like Slack to discuss work items in an agendaless manner then you are just creating a way to interrupt everyone in your company.

There are two good reasons to use real-time chat:

  1. To discuss non-work items in an opt-in way: create a room for people to discuss drones, or dogs, or dance moves. Nobody is required to participate, and it is used to build rapport among coworkers.
  2. To discuss specific items or emergency events: a support channel with a small crowd makes sense, a group dedicated to figuring out what to work on next between two options makes sense. A general channel with everyone in the company talking about the weather does not.

Playback and Rephrase

Regardless of which communicate method or tool you are using, when you communicate you must make sure the message gets to the right person. Asking “What did you hear?” is a way to do this, and when you get an assignment, play it back in advance to make sure you understand it before going off and getting started. This can be done in writing or over video, and including this acknowledgment step can drastically improve your success rate.

For collaborative meetings, rotate people around for note-taking to allow for people to practice being the listener and the person who plays items back. Conclude meetings and online discussions with simple summary statements that are acknowledged and committed to.

With these simple steps, you can influence and improve your team communication, and if you do it well, you can even be more in step than if you were working in the same building. One of the greatest ways to test the health of a remote team is to get them in the same building and see if they shift the way that they work or not; many times you find that they keep working as they did before – getting together for quick heated discussions, and then get back to work – writing it all down as they go.