Is Video Conferencing a Good Substitute for Face-to-face Meetings?


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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.

Article written by

Surinder Kahai is an Associate Professor of MIS and Fellow of the Center for Leadership Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton. He has a B. Tech in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay), an M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Rutgers University, and a Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Michigan. Surinder has an active research program on leadership in virtual teams, computer-mediated communication and learning, collaboration in virtual worlds, CIO leadership, and IT alignment. His research has been published in several journals including Data Base for Advances in Information Systems, Decision Sciences, Group & Organization Management, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Management Information Systems, Leadership Quarterly, and Personnel Psychology. He is currently serving on the editorial boards of Group and Organization Management, IEEE-TEM, and the International Journal of e-Collaboration. He co-edited a Special Issue of Organizational Dynamics on e-leadership and a Special Issue of International Journal of e-Collaboration on Virtual Team Leadership. Surinder has won numerous awards for his teaching, including the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Surinder has spoken on and consulted with several organizations in the U.S. and abroad on the topics of virtual team leadership, e-business, and IS-business alignment, and IS strategy and planning

10 Responses

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  1. Gennady Beyzarov
    Gennady Beyzarov at |

    Thank you for the article. I do not question the results of the Ferran and Watts research. However, the culture of technology use is changing at an extremely rapid pace. As new generations become more comfortable with technology in their daily personal lives, this comfort will permeate the business environment as well. I therefore suspect that the results of the referenced research will not be as applicable to the not so future generations of leaders. Moreover, as business continues to become more globalized, the use of video conferencing will most likely expand, again adding to the level of comfort. Just as the telephone was once a cumbersome tool that most likely required the use of more cognitive energy than it does today, so too will video conferencing.

  2. Joe
    Joe at |

    We have been using video conferencing to host debate in Ireland. Typically 25 + people login – not everyone wants to be seen, not everyone has the best bandwidth .. but – there is absolutely to question about *engagement*. It also depends or at least I thought it did on “age” when in fact I’ve noticed that with some short training – speakers of all age have no issues. Bottom line, if folks know the video conference is being recorded, they pay attention and participate.

  3. Frank Sanframonti
    Frank Sanframonti at |

    Yes, I think video conferencing is a great alternative to a Face to face meeting, but only if you have already established a presents with the people you’re meeting with first. I think it’s always a good practice to have at least a couple of Face to Face meetings upfront so you can establish the relationship in the beginning.

    In addition, depending on the scope of the meeting and what needs to be accomplished a Face to Face meeting might be more beneficial for both you and the customer.

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