Video communication: a hidden pitfall

High-quality communication is a vital factor in boosting collective intelligence and performance in teams, and it has long been recognised that nonverbal information is instrumental in this regard. In fact, researchers have shown that body language, facial expressions and voice tone and pitch can be more reliable than spoken language itself in transmitting information about emotion and in helping to build relationships. They also help to regulate the pace of interactions, helping to ensure information is transmitted successfully.

However, most research in this area took place before the era of Zoom and Teams, raising the question of whether nonverbal cues remain as important to our conversation quality when so many of them take place through screens.

This study looked into this question by measuring performance of groups collaborating online, both with and without video. The researchers also looked at the level of synchronicity between facial and vocal (nonverbal) cues within these groups. Synchronicity here isn't just about paying attention to nonverbal cues, but also reflects a sense of interpersonal harmony. Groups that are highly synchronized are on the same wavelength and tend to outperform those that are not.

The researchers found that in online group tasks with video enabled, the synchronization of facial expressions correlated with the quality of the group's decision-making. This seems to suggest that when people on video calls use it to pay attention to other’s body language, it can help to facilitate good communication in a similar way to in-person interaction.

What might be more surprising is that when the video was switched off, collective decision making quality was unaffected. Whilst there was, of course, no possibility of gaining an uplift in performance from the body language effect without visual cues, synchronisation of voice tone and pitch was actually superior when the video was deactivated, seemingly compensating for the loss of visual information effects.

The researchers suggest this may be because video communication enables some people to dominate a conversation by leveraging visual nonverbal cues to increase their ‘air time’, reducing the richness of the interaction and the contribution of other, quieter members. Fair turn-taking is an important precursor to maximising collective intelligence, and video may in fact hamper this. 

If this is the case, it demonstrates the importance of ensuring inclusivity and turn-taking in all conversations at work, however they take place. Harnessing the unique contributions of every team member is a key step towards making optimal decisions.