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Summary:

Does video really perform as well as face-to-face interaction? How does it compare to audio-only communication? Does it always outperform text-only channels like email? Let’s look at different types of tasks and see how video affects the work and communication quality experienced by remote teams.

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It’s easy to assume remote team communication will be better with video. After all, if it’s rarely possible to meet with your team face-to-face, video may be the closest alternative you have.

But does video really perform as well as face-to-face interaction? How does it compare to audio-only communication? Does it always outperform text-only channels like instant messaging and email? Let’s look at different types of tasks and see how video affects the work and communication quality experienced by remote teams.

Technical Tasks

In a study from Carnegie Mellon University, instructors coached inexperienced participants to repair a bicycle. Each pair communicated in one of the following ways: side-by-side, with an audio link, or with an audio-video link. The groups who worked side-by-side accomplished the task around 25 percent faster than the audio-only and audio-video groups. The latter two groups had no significant difference in time taken to complete the task or work quality.

How come video made no difference to the effectiveness of communication? In the experiment, the setup also made it hard for instructors to see referenced equipment; the worker had to maneuver the camera in its direction. This suggests for technical tasks, audio-only and audio-video connections might not result in a significant difference in work quality unless a sufficient quantity of visual information is shared. We should include views of the workspace, necessary equipment, and even the facial and gestural expressions of the participants. Plus, everyone must understand what visual information is being shared, to avoid repeatedly and unnecessarily asking other participants what it is they can see.

Negotiation

Research shows when it comes to negotiation, the richer the medium, the more collaborative negotiation becomes. Competitive bargaining is reduced, and negotiators exert more effort seeking common ground. This also reduces bargaining time and allows participants to become more open to future negotiations. So when you need to conduct remote negotiation and want it to be as collaborative is possible, always go for the richer medium. This means favoring videoconferencing over audio-only communications.

There is also more subtle kind of negotiation: the negotiation of meaning. In one experiment, researchers studied how pairs of native English speakers and non-native English speakers explained map routes to each other. Some teams performed the task with audio only, while others could see their partner on a screen.

Did video improve the negotiations? Not necessarily. Pairs that consisted only of native English speakers did not benefit from video. On the other hand, pairs with a non-native speaker had a much better performance with video.

According to the analysis, non-native English speakers with video had a higher rate of instructions and checked their understanding more. This might be because instructors could see visual cues as to whether their instructions were being understood or not. Without these cues, an audio-only team might go ahead to the next step without realizing that the instructions were misunderstood.

Team Cohesiveness

When it comes to team building, remote teams face several challenges. According to several studies, the perceived distance between members may lead to decreased cooperation and increased deception within the team. The good news is that there is evidence that increased and improved interaction may lessen the perceived distance over time. Can adding video help?

In one study, the researchers pointed out the cohesiveness of a group can depend on the following factors:

  • Interpersonal attraction: the feeling of affection among members of a team.
  • Group pride: the feeling of prestige, satisfaction and loyalty towards the other team members.
  • Task commitment: the sense of attraction towards the tasks of the team.

Their findings showed when it comes to achieving these three factors, videoconferencing was the most effective means of remote communication. For interpersonal attraction and task commitment, the second most effective medium was email. Audio conferencing was the least effective medium. As for group pride, videoconferencing was followed by audio conferencing, with email and instant messaging performing considerably less well.

While the various methods of communication provided no significant differences in performance, videoconferencing seemed to have the best effect on their cohesiveness. Another study from the University of Amsterdam may hold the explanation as to why this might be, indicating videoconferencing lowers the perceived distance between members of a group by creating the impression of shared space, even when workers are remotely located.

Socialization

Interactions in the workplace aren’t limited to business. There’s water cooler talk where colleagues discuss their families, hobbies, and other personal topics. These spontaneous interactions happen less frequently (or not at all) for remote teams because we don’t have a shared office. We may be tempted to dismiss spontaneous social interactions like these as trivial, or at least less important than our work, but research from the University of Michigan shows informal conversations before collaboration were an important aspect of establishing trust for remote teams. If video is added, will it make a difference?

A 2007 study from the University of Calgary showed remote teams socialized at the beginning of a videoconferencing session, mimicking face-to-face encounters. This was true even for teams where the members were already acquainted and had some tasks to finish. According to the researchers, these teams were probably encouraged by the “shared space” they had, since the central team had a dedicated facility with multiple projectors and screens.

But this kind of dedicated space for videoconferencing isn’t always possible. Elaborate telepresence setups may be costly and can take up too much room. Though the use of “virtual space” is a good alternative — such as a separate monitor or a section on your screen — many workers may not have enough screen real estate to accommodate both social videoconferences and working applications. This may mean that for now, videoconferencing isn’t the best medium for spontaneous social exchange.

In the book Distributed Work from The MIT Press, authors Bonnie Nardi and Steve Whittaker suggested chat contributed to a remote team’s sense of social connection. It also provided a venue for real-time impromptu conversations between members of a team. Perhaps chatting or instant messaging — without video — is a less intrusive, more cost-effective way of being open to social exchanges.

When it comes to technical tasks, negotiation, team building and socialization, simply adding video to communications doesn’t automatically add value. We need to make informed decisions about how and why we want to use it. Only then will our video equipment, software and efforts be worth it.

Do you use video in remote communication? When was it essential and when was it unnecessary?

Photo courtesy stock.xchng user speedy2

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  1. Dane Findley Monday, April 18, 2011

    This is surprising and counter-intuitive. It just *seems* that video would be preferential — it’s less expensive than brick-and-mortar office meetings, for starters.

    However, I can tell you that whenever I start out a meeting on Skype video, we almost always move quickly to audio-only, as invariably we begin moving around our offices, referencing papers on our desks, or toggling between browser tabs!

    { twitter = @danenow }

  2. I’ve been running a virtual office for over a decade and I always love to see the person I’m talking to, whenever possible. When you’re working with your remote team, you don’t really get the luxury of team huddles or meetings.. and there are non-verbal cues that you can see on your screen. Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to share a smile on a tiny pop-up window to someone thousands of miles away from where you are? Videoconferencing simply bridges the gap between technology and that thing that makes us human: Trust.

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