A month ago, a casual conversation with my neighbour gave me food for thought. She’s Head of HR for a mid-sized Financial Services business and during lockdown, she has observed that there has been a real increase in what she would call “petty complaints” being escalated to her. Seemingly trivial things that would have normally flown under the radar in previous years.
It seems that with face-to-face meetings having been replaced by video conferences, we are starting to miss (or misread) many of the most important parts of human communication - body language. And for my neighbour, those communication breakdowns were ending up in her inbox when only last year they would have been settled the proper way, around the office water cooler!
When we first started having to use video technology to communicate at Richard Lloyd Recruitment, one of our Directors lamented that everyone seemed so glum online, so disengaged and try as he might to brighten the meetings, he was instead met with a wall of disinterested faces. But was that how we were actually feeling? Or did it just appear that way? Of course, once we begin to make the wrong assumptions, we begin to react differently, which could cause us all sorts of issues.
So, what exactly is going wrong when we engage online?
Well for starters, video conferencing isn’t natural, and it interrupts all of the nuances of human interaction. Even a small technological delay is enough to raise our anxiety levels and mess with our perception and patience! A German study, a few years back found that even a small delay of 1.2 seconds is enough for video participants to be perceived as less attentive, less extraverted, and less conscientious.
The other key piece of communication that is lost is the body cues and the expression subtleties that our brains are adept at picking up, deciphering, and responding to appropriately. Without body language signals, we are having to rely on verbal and tonal communication only. In the 1950s, the Iranian Psychologist Albert Mehrabian theorised that of our communication, 7% is verbal, 38% is vocal (tone, inflections, etc) and the remaining 55% is non-verbal. That means over half of our communication could be compromised when we engage online.
Put all of this together and it’s not hard to see what sort of chaos that could cause over time. But there is a compounding issue too – we are no longer able to relieve the pressure valve like we used to. By not seeing our colleagues on a daily, let alone a weekly basis, we don’t have that opportunity to gently take a colleague to one side ‘to clarify a few things’ they said. Settle the dust if you will.
So, what is the answer?
Given that this pandemic doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon, video conferencing is going to be around for a while yet. So we might as well get used to it! In the meanwhile:
I guess the real key is to understand that video conferencing is not perfect. It’s all we have, and as long as we can accept it for what it is, we should all be able to deal with apparent miscommunications like the grown-up, big people we allegedly are.
Hopefully, HR will have less to worry about and won’t have to unravel petty complaints about ‘someone looking at someone else the wrong way’ before the video froze.
If you are interested in further reading on how to improve your communication style, read our blog on Improving your Communication Skills in the Workforce written by our very own David Landau.
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