Virtual Meetings Really Are Worse, Research Finds — but There’s a Fix
While virtual meetings have mushroomed in popularity since the COVID pandemic began, concerns remain they aren’t as effective as traditional, in-person meetings — which is already an incredibly low bar!
A 2022 survey by the University of Cambridge Judge Business School found not only that the number of meetings grew by 7.4% between June 2020 and December 2021, but also that the meetings were typically low quality. In short, this is not time well spent.
There are several ways of defining low quality meetings. Participants might be multitasking throughout, or they might be double-booked with other meetings or tasks. The meetings might even have participants with overly similar roles, increasing duplication.
“The relationships emerging from the data are clear: working longer (a higher workweek span), less productively (more low-quality meetings), and in arguably a more stressful manner (higher levels of multitasking) is associated with universally worse outcomes including a decline in work-life balance and quality of work,” the study authors explained.
What’s in Your Brain?
A group of researchers at Stanford University in 2022 published research suggesting part of the problem might be that we're worse at taking turns in virtual conversations than in physical ones. This, in turn, results in us generally feeling less happy and positive about those conversations.
The research team followed up with a second paper published earlier this year, in which they explored various ways we can have better virtual meetings. One failsafe tactic they found? Simply showing appreciation for the other person in the conversation.
After reviewing brain scans of participants taken as they engaged in virtual meetings, the researchers found that expressing appreciation triggers activity in the parts of the brain that are linked to social cognition.
To simulate work-related interactions in a controlled laboratory setting, the researchers organized 72 participants into pairs and assigned each pair either to meet in person or to connect virtually over Zoom.
Related Article: 8 Ways to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging
The interactions between the pairs were not only meticulously recorded on video and audio, but also the research team used portable functional near-infrared spectroscopy neuroimaging technology to track changes in the participants’ brain activity — specifically, oxygenation levels in different regions of the brain. The pairs were given three distinct tasks that required varying cognitive skills, with the aim of assessing their collaborative abilities.
“We could have chosen all kinds of tasks, but because we wanted it to be applicable to the work environment, we chose a problem-solving task, a creativity task, and an emotion-sharing task,” the researchers explained.
The first task required the pairs to identify the most important traffic safety rules on US highways. For the second task, conversational teams were asked to come up with an innovative solution to increase water conservation in California households. Finally, the pairs engaged in an emotion-sharing task, where they discussed their personal experiences of unmet needs and their associated emotions.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the participants’ subjective experiences, the researchers administered several surveys before and after each task to assess participants' energy and stress levels, their assessments of their own and their partner's performance, their level of cooperation and their sense of closeness with their partner. Additionally, the researchers conducted an objective assessment of each pair's performance on the tasks, which involved analyzing the recorded interactions.
In offline conversations, the researchers found, we tend to take turns and have more of a back-and-forth conversation — but this isn't the case online. Instead, we each tend to speak for much longer without any interruption or contribution from our colleagues.
How McDonald’s Drove Productivity Through an Elevated Employee Experience
In the new remote/hybrid workplace, work/life boundaries are blurred and workplace stress is a top driver of mental health needs.
How to Future-Proof Your Employee Experience Strategy in 2023
A framework to navigate through economic uncertainty
Challenges to Efficiency in 2023: Your Employees Need the Digital Workplace of the Future
The era of asking employees to do more with less is upon us
The Essential Role of Communicators in Fostering Wellbeing in the Digital Workplace
Join us for practical insights on how digital communicators can support employees to thrive in the digital workplace
Addressing Employee Needs and Wants with a Digital Workplace
The workplace is getting more and more digital – both in how we work and where we work
Maintaining a Human-Centered Approach During Digital Transformation
When it comes to digital transformation - people drive change, not technology
When people were better able to take turns and have a more natural conversation, not only did they feel more positive about the conversation but also they also had a better sense of cooperation with their partner. What's more, they even performed better on a number of tasks as rated by outside observers.
“For the virtual pairs, we saw a decrease in turn-taking and that is actually a negative thing for their social interaction and task performance,” the researchers explained.
Related Article: Are Meetings Overrated in the Digital Workplace?
Emotional sharing tasks produced the highest coherence levels between participants' brains in face-to-face interactions, while virtual interactions generated more coherence during problem-solving and creativity tasks.
However, the authors caution against automatically equating higher coherence with better outcomes. In some cases, the coherence measure may simply reflect the overactivation of certain brain regions, as seen in instances where participants struggled to hear each other.
Additionally, the researchers identified certain patterns of coherence that were associated with more turn-taking, suggesting that coherence may play a role in regulating social dynamics during interactions.
“Once we understand what happens in the brain with neuroimaging, we can develop better technological interventions,” they explained. “We might be able to help video conferencing companies improve their systems with new features that facilitate turn-taking and make brain activity as close as possible to in-person interactions.”
One analogue method of addressing the different behaviors exhibited online versus offline was simply to ask participants to spend a couple of minutes expressing some appreciation for their partner, which was sufficient to impact their brain activity. This simple task increased the interbrain coherence across the parts of the brain linked with social cognitive processing.
Both the participants having in-person meetings and the participants engaging in video chats reported a greater sense of connection with their conversation partner following the expression of appreciation. So, it seems, taking the time to show a bit of appreciation for our colleagues could be key no matter how we’re meeting with them — no bad thing for harmony in the workplace.
Learn how you can join our contributor community.
About the Author
I currently advise the European Institute of Innovation & Technology, am a researcher on the future of work for the University of East Anglia, and was a futurist for the sustainability innovation group Katerva, as well as mentoring startups through Startup Bootcamp. I have a weekly column on the future of work for Forbes, and my writing has appeared on the BBC and the Huffington Post, as well as for companies such as HCL, Salesforce, Adobe, Amazon and Alcatel-Lucent. Connect with Adi Gaskell: