Video Calls are Bad for Business; Bring Back the Telephone!

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” — General George S. Patton

Video conferencing has been part of corporate life since the 1990s. As we’re all painfully aware, it rapidly became a ubiquitous mainstay during the COVID pandemic that remains in widespread use. But rich media cuts both ways, offering tremendous benefits in certain use cases, but dramatically diminishing creativity, focus, engagement, and teamwork in others.

When was the last time you thought about when and how you and your team use video to communicate? It’s an important question to consider because, somewhat counterintuitively, there’s a strong argument to be made for less face time and more phone time.

I recently chatted with my longtime client Andy Fisher, CEO of technology solutions company Myriad360, about the opportunities and limitations of video—and the vital importance of maintaining practical, efficient, and effective communication channels.

There’s a strong argument to be made for less face time and more phone time.

Like many businesses, Myriad360’s relationship with video conferencing changed dramatically during the pandemic. “Previously, we were very much a New York-centric business. People came into the office every single day. You wondered what someone was up to if they worked from home for two days,” Andy said. Though team members were accustomed to video conferencing with clients across the country and around the world, communicating via video within the firm became the norm when the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders went into place. Since then, Myriad360’s 145 employees have transitioned away from offices to a remote-first structure. Along the way, Andy and his team began more closely evaluating the impact of “mostly video communications” on their interactions. What they found aligns with my own experiences as a coach and the body of research on video as a means of connection.

In the spirit of General George S. Patton’s wise words quoted above, here are four constraining effects of video communications that make the case for more phone time:

Diminished Focus

If you’re a leader, you undoubtedly care about your staff’s ability to focus. Ironically, while many rely on video as a means of keeping tabs on others’ presence and productivity, it often has the exact opposite effect. While seated in front of a computer on a video call, one is subject to every distraction the internet has to offer! For example, the constant ping of email and Slack notifications, background objects in others’ cameras, “breaking” alerts from news feeds, and even gazing at our own reflection takes away from our ability to be optimally present for those on the other side of the dialogue.

Since well before the pandemic, I’ve preferred one-on-one coaching conversations via telephone to both in-person and video interactions. I find that I am a significantly more effective listener and coach when I eliminate the distractions inherent in face-to-face and video conversations. Over the phone, I’m more likely to perceive the nuance of tone, inflection, hesitation, and emotion–all of which add to my efficacy as a coach.

When the world rushed to video in 2020, we unknowingly surrendered some of our focus.

Greater Fatigue

As Andy points out, “There’s such a thing as Zoom fatigue. It’s looking at yourself that makes you tired. Who wants to stare in a mirror all day?” Extensive research, including work by Stanford professor and founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab Jeremy Bailenson, shows that, for humans, looking at ourselves is actually quite stressful—and thus, exhausting.

Further, work days tend to have less variability for those with heavy online video communications. We’re tied to our desks longer and experience fewer changes of scenery, a smaller number of spontaneous conversations, and less novelty–all of which are important to recharge ourselves throughout the day.

If you feel more wiped out at the end of each business day than you used to, video may be to blame.

If you feel more wiped out at the end of each business day than you used to, video may be to blame. At the very least, like I’ve done, change your settings so you’re not sapping energy by looking at yourself in the virtual mirror.

Less Creativity

Some of the world’s best known leaders—Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Harry S. Truman, among many others, have been known for their tendency to “walk-and-talk.” It turns out, there’s something to this: in 2014, a Stanford University study found that walking significantly improves creativity, making it a worthwhile endeavor during conversations.

Video communication, on the other hand, all but forces seated, at-your-desk participation (lest you risk giving other participants motion sickness as you wander around). Being tethered to your desk interrupts and limits the creative cognitive processes essential to solve problems, to innovate, and to build quality relationships. Andy agrees. “I’ve found that I don’t do my best thinking sitting at my desk, where I’ve got to be contained. I do my best thinking walking around the house or the neighborhood, with my earbuds in.”

Get up. Get out. And do it on the phone.

Lower Vulnerability

As I worked with leadership teams through the pandemic via video, I noted a decrease in personal vulnerability and sharing which are essential elements to build trust and a high-performing team. Although I don’t exactly understand the cause, it seems like face-to-face interaction via video reduces our willingness to be vulnerable, to challenge others, and to offer new ideas.

Creating an environment where people are comfortable being vulnerable, instigating productive conflict, and taking risks requires work and is key to your success. Think about how a reduction in video calls might help your people perform better as a team.

Conclusion

A leader’s effectiveness is measured by the accumulation of results stemming from their decisions, with passive, default choices often producing the least favorable outcomes.

When Andy realized how video was negatively affecting his focus, creativity, and energy, he decided to scale back his reliance on Zoom calls: “I’ve moved all my one-on-one meetings to audio, where I can walk around the house. I find that I’m more of a creative thinker and I tend to be more focused [on the phone], because there are no other distractions.”

Of course, there are circumstances in which video remains the most effective medium. When you’re sharing bad news or otherwise providing an update that has a significant impact on someone’s role, it’s important to be able to observe and interpret body language and other visual cues. Similarly, Andy holds his firmwide all-hands meetings and other conversations with multiple voices over video, as it’s helpful to see those to whom he’s speaking while also minimizing unexpected interruptions.

“In my business, we have Zoom, Slack, email, phone calls, and text messages. I use all of them every day. My choice of medium depends on the type of communication, the urgency of it, and the recipient or recipients,” Andy said. “We try to use the right tool for the job.”

Are you making active or passive choices?

Indeed, video communication is a tool, just like the telephone. Both have strengths and both have limitations. But are you making active or passive choices?

It’s time to think more critically about your team’s communication habits and whether, in fact, you’re using the right tool for each job at hand. Video may have killed the radio star, but long live the telephone!

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