By Yvonne Milosevic
Want to know what is the most underappreciated technology of the last year-plus? The humble telephone. When the pandemic began, businesses, schools, and everyone between rushed to embrace video conferencing tools. But staring at faces in boxes all day didn’t turn out to be the panacea we had hoped.
Besides causing well-documented Zoom fatigue, researchers now say that video calls aren’t even that effective for communication. Many of us have experienced Zoom meetings where people are interrupting or talking over each other. Plus, the temptation to check your phone or answer emails on the side is often too great to resist. Phone calls, on the other hand, are far superior both for conveying emotion and boosting group performance.
“We found that video conferencing can actually reduce collective intelligence,” says Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “This is because it leads to more unequal contribution to conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony. Our study underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access.”
Having both audio and visual cues seems like it would be the next best thing to in-person interactions. But studies have found that both become diminished over Zoom. Video chat is harder for our brains to process than face-to-face communication. We need intense focus to absorb information and process facial expressions, tone, and body language. That extra effort requires more mental bandwidth.
What Gives Phone Calls the Advantage?
Across a series of tests, Woolley and her colleagues found that people rely more on audio cues than visual ones to move a conversation forward. Video hindered the participants’ ability to detect changes in tone or rhythm of speech.
But the test subjects who had only audio capabilities did a better job of speaking in turn and contributing to conversations. That’s because when you rely solely on voice communication, any silence is more noticeable. You’re less likely to talk over your conversation partner and more apt to wait to hear their reply.
After analyzing these results, the researchers question whether most of our meetings actually need video.
These findings echo a 2017 paper by Yale School of Management’s Michael W. Kraus. Through a series of five experiments, Kraus found that participants could better guess their conversation partner’s emotions when the discussion was voice-only. It turns out that vocal cues are more useful conveyers of emotion than facial expressions. Something in our voice gives greater insight into our mental state than our body language does.
So, the next time your team plans to meet over Zoom, consider having a conference call instead. People will appreciate the break from being on camera. Plus, their attention levels will likely increase. Just because video technology is pervasive doesn’t mean it’s the best tool for every job. More often, phone calls offer the low-tech solution we didn’t know we needed.