Videoconferencing: It’s time to turn our cameras on

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Videoconferencing: It’s time to turn our cameras on

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a lot of us working from home. Many of our daily meetings moved from huddle corners and conference tables, to Zoom, Teams, WebEx and the like. 

As businesses have been transitioning to these new methods of collaborating, social distancing measures that are taking place in the external world seem to be making their way to our online work lives. It’s easy to unquestioningly accept that anything involving tech or innovation is automatically better. But does our experience in online meetings really support that idea? 

Connecting whilst distancing 

The point of using videoconferencing is to allow us to see each other and have high quality interactions. Ones where we can express ourselves with a degree of assurance that we have been understood. Where we can exchange ideas and gauge what level of support or resistance they are having. We should be able to identify when softer-spoken colleagues have something really valuable to say (in recognition that frequent speakers usually have an inverse-correlation to depth of reflective or analytical thinking).

Most of us feel self-conscious about our appearance, we aren’t used to seeing ourselves through a camera, etiquette about online meetings is still evolving, intermittent connections and microphone muting add another vector of weirdness – not forgetting that we are giving our colleagues and contacts a peek into the sanctuary of our private living spaces. (You remember the young actor doing a Zoom audition in November, who heard the unmuted director unwittingly comment about “these poor people living in tiny apartments”?!).

No one truly cares about our appearance (barring the obvious risks of taking your laptop into your bathroom or doing some unusual form of multi-tasking). Having our cameras on allows us to have a similar interaction to what we would have experienced in real life. It gives us the opportunity to stay connected with our co-workers at a time where we might not get to physically see them for weeks or months at a time. This is of course the ideal. The reality is, many of us find ourselves faced with a wall of black boxes to look at, which creates an asymmetry of openness, trust, accountability. It’s like an arms race in reverse. Once one person turns their camera off, it provokes a wave of response as people seek to equalise the visual experience.

Now, with some software driven apps, there’s a good technical reason to do this. Some apps suffer from bandwidth and latency issues if the visual images contain too much change. The compression software has too much work to do and the network connection can sometimes be unable to cope with the higher level of video data it produces. A way to manage this is to get people to turn their cameras off. (Here in Belgium, telcos report that a typical year would see an increase of internet traffic around 30%. In the first 10 months of 2020, that rate doubled. There have been 83% more videocalls made in 2020 vs. 2019 and this places a great burden on infrastructure).

Back to us though. A long-term shift to remote working changes the relationships within teams, how new hires are onboarded, how organisations can adapt and reconfigure structures and teams (a clue: it’s harder as trusted relationships take longer to form).  There’s also the important issue of how inequalities can be perpetuated or go unchallenged when they are less easily observed. Women report that they are more likely to be talked over, interrupted, or ignored in online meetings compared to in-person equivalents.

Effective virtual teams require social cohesion, mutual trust, that each participant feels psychologically safe (according to however they perceive it – which is frequently different from the group average level) – and share skills, experience and knowledge freely. Whilst use of cameras can place a burden of managing appearance (which interestingly, seems to have more detriment to women who may feel more harshly judged for casual or unkept appearance than a man would)… the positive benefits of non-verbal communication should be carefully considered.

Lights, cameras, action!

Back in March 2020, at the onset of our lockdown experiences, we made a short and playful video with ten tips to get more out of your video conferencing experience. The goal is to achieve high quality interactions. We think the advice remains relevant and useful in 2021, particularly given that remote working does not look like it is going to go away any time soon. We hope you enjoy watching it and can think of a few colleagues you might like to share the tips with. Here’s hoping that this year gives us many more reasons to smile again.

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