Analysis: The psychology of videoconferencing
Visual cues vital to productive virtual meetings, finds Cisco
By Ian Williams in Barcelona, Vnunet.com
The research, presented at
Networkers 2009 in Barcelona, attempted to answer questions about the role
of video in effective business communications, and to identify the skills and
best practices needed to make the most of the technology, and the potential
The study found that, compared to traditional voice or text-only
communication, video can help to reduce the effects of culture and personality
clashes. However, it can also heighten anxiety and self-consciousness, meaning
that businesses need to help employees develop the right skills to make the most
of these tools.
"Over the past decade a lot of acquisitions have occurred and a lot of
organisations have globalised, meaning that they have offices that cross many
cultural and geographic boundaries," said Stuart Duff, head of development at
Pearn Kandola, and leader of the research team.
"Video is a key enabler to enhance collaboration between team members who are
geographically separated, as well as customers around the globe."
Another recent report by Cisco into remote and mobile working predicted that
there will be more than 900 million mobile workers around the world by the end
The research also revealed that trust is the single biggest factor when it
comes to leading remote teams, and that technologies such as videoconferencing
can help to keep teams in close contact and build trust between geographically
Pearn Kandola uncovered some early research into how humans communicate,
which was published in 1971 by
Mehrabian from UCLA after a 10-year study. The research revealed that only
seven per cent of our understanding comes from pure words, and that 40 per cent
is gleaned from the tone of the voice and 53 per cent from visual cues.
There is some debate as to the accuracy of these percentages, but the
consensus is that much of our intonation is non-verbal. "If you don't have
visual cues, you may be denying yourself half the opportunity to communicate
messages," said Duff.
The researchers also found that meetings generate a far stronger relationship
bond when there are visual cues available.
"This may seem obvious, but the biggest difference was made by subtle things
like nodding and smiling which shows attentiveness and gives encouragement,"
This is reflected in telephone conversations or conference calls, where
participants often get distracted, and lose attentiveness and engagement.
However, the same factors can also work against videoconferencing by raising
self-awareness and making some people anxious or concerned that they are under
"In a phone conversation a pause can mean any number of different things,
such as disagreement, boredom, reflection or even agreement. But with visuals
added it immediately becomes clearer what a pause means," said Duff.
Energiser/Distracter: These types have sporadic bursts of
engaged interaction, interspersed with long periods of distraction. Video
provides a more stimulating environment, leading to higher levels of engagement.
Thinker/Shrinker: The quiet geniuses of the group who give
deep thought to issues. With visual cues, periods of quiet thought are less
likely to be misinterpreted as disengagement.
Friendly/Talkalot: The extroverts who can talk over others
or cause the agenda to drift. The ability to see colleagues gives context to
natural pauses in conversation, reducing the need for these participants to fill
Creative/Impractical: Characterised by a wealth of creative
and boundary-pushing ideas, these participants are kept more grounded by the
richer interactions that video provides.
Grounded/Obstructive: These down-to-earth pragmatists are
stubbornly rooted in what they consider reality. Video gives them a visual
presence at the meeting, so they are more likely to have their opinions heard
and to be less obstructive.
Finally, the study revealed that visual input can be invaluable when crossing
cultural divides, particularly in situations where hierarchy is viewed very
differently. The report highlighted the contrast between people from places like
Japan and Germany, for instance, where one typically adheres to a strict and
highly respectful chain of command, and the other tends towards a more flat and
"The factors that contribute to success during video communication relate to
individuals and their mindsets, how teams are managed through their leaders, and
how the organisation can create a supportive culture," concluded Duff.
"We observed the value of visual cues in successful meetings, and video
technologies that maximise this, such as telepresence, are ideal for maintaining
"However, individuals who approach meetings with a positive attitude, leaders
who understand and support the different personalities and cultures in their
teams, and organisations that provide the resources and training to make video
communications the norm, are also essential to effective video-enabled meetings.
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