When air travel to and from several European cities was curtailed due to volcanic ash, people adopted Skype and other video conferencing tools in lieu of travel. Unlike email or telephone, video conferencing is thought to be like face-to-face communication but only somewhat leaner because one is not in the same place as the person one is communicating with. In other words, video conferencing is thought to vary in degree rather than in nature.
Research on video conferencing, however, paints a different picture. It argues that video-conferencing gives rise to a different kind of information processing than what takes place during face-to-face meetings. A case in point is a study by Carlos Ferran and Stephanie Watts, published in September 2008 in Management Science.
According to the researchers, communicators using video conferencing face a higher cognitive load than face-to-face communicators because of a variety of challenges, including those of identifying who is speaking, detecting movement, coordinating eye-contact, turn-taking, and conversation pacing. Video conferencing also consumes greater cognitive attention due to heightened self-awareness. Faced with a higher cognitive load, users of video conferencing may economize when evaluating the information presented the speaker. They may economize by using heuristics, such as how likeable they perceive the speaker to be, rather than the quality of the arguments presented by the speaker when judging whether or not they will adopt or use the information presented by the speaker. On the other hand, in face-to-face meetings, the communication medium does not impose as much cognitive burden, thereby leaving the receiver of any communication with adequate cognitive resources to focus on the quality of information while making judgment about whether or not it will be adopted and used.
Ferran and Watts report results from a field study in which they found support for their model of how video conferencing may differ from face-to-face communication. In a study of medical professionals, they found that participants attending a seminar via video conference were more influenced by the speaker’s likeability than by the quality of the speaker’s arguments, whereas the opposite pattern was true for participants who attended in person. The likeability of a person was based on the extent to what that person was perceived as charismatic, appealing, interesting, and friendly. The researchers also confirmed that differences in cognitive load explained these effects. Based on these findings, the authors argued that video conferencing does not simply approach face-to-face interaction — it changes what we attend to. Essentially, we end up attending more to peripheral cues in the form of a person’s likeability than to systematic or rigorous cues to judge the information we are receiving from that person via video conferencing. A word of caution should be noted about Ferran and Watts’ findngs: they apply to the use of video conferencing in seminar-like settings where participants have not had prior interaction with the presenter.
What do the results from Ferran and Watts mean for a leader? When the leader is having a tough time convincing others about the merits of a proposal but is a likeable person, s/he should use video-conferencing rather than a face-to-face meeting to make her/his case. A leader may also recruit a likeable person to present the proposal. Or, if a virtual team is using video-conferencing and the leader would like participants to be more systematic in their processing, the leader should minimize the cognitive burden of using video conferencing. This can be done by giving the users enough training on the use of video conferencing. Moreover, the users should do a dry run with each other so that they become more familiar with each other’s turn-taking pauses, pacing gestures, and other ways of regulating the communication.
Another thing a virtual team leader who can do to increase the attention to logical aspects of the information being presented is to make it easy for participants to focus on logical aspects. Having another window (in addition to the one showing a video of the presenter) that allows users to see a running slide presentation, with arguments laid out very clearly, might be helpful.
In summary, the evidence presented by Ferran and Watts suggests that video conferencing may not be comparable to face-to-face meetings because it changes the nature of information processing by its users. In that sense, it does not substitute for face-to-face meetings. Consequently, simply thinking that video conferencing can be made to approach face-to-face meetings by improving the picture quality may not suffice. One needs to focus on reducing the cognitive burden imposed by video conferencing in order to make it approach face-to-face meetings.