Analysis: The psychology of videoconferencing

Visual cues vital to productive virtual meetings, finds Cisco

By Ian Williams in Barcelona,


The research, presented at Cisco 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 barriers.

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 of 2009.

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 separated groups.

Pearn Kandola uncovered some early research into how humans communicate, which was published in 1971 by Albert 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," explained Duff.

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 scrutiny.

"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 silences.

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 equalised environment.

"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 excellent relationships.

"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. " End of article.

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