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.

Accountability

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.