Is a Meeting by Video Better than by Phone?

With nearly all office workers suddenly telecommuting from home due to the Coronavirus, videoconferencing has become the standard. I’ve been lucky and haven’t participated in one meeting that included a video feed. I say lucky because I don’t feel the need to see the people I am speaking to over the phone, and don’t feel the need for them to see me. Actually, I would prefer if we didn’t have to see each other. I bet some—or many—of you secretly feel the same.

I found an article on the “Do’s and Don’ts” of video meetings in The New York Times. It’s funny, for a publication based in New York City, where nearly everyone lives in a tiny space, at least one suggestion is not helpful—to go in a private room and close the door if you can. I have a very small bedroom with a door that is separate from the rest of my apartment, but it’s a room strictly for sleeping with not enough room for a work desk. So let’s presume that most others in New York don’t have an extra room where their desk is and where there is a door that can be shut. Let’s also presume that even if you do have that extra room, children and pets often don’t respect closed doors. I can’t speak to the behavior of children, having none of my own, but I know what would happen if I went into my bedroom and shut the door during a meeting—the meeting would have door scratching and meowing as ambiance. 

I have never been a fan of in-person meetings because I have always felt they invite posturing in a way that would never happen if the manager instead asked each member of the work group to e-mail a few ideas for a new product or service (or whatever it was that needed to be decided on). The manager then could pick her top three favorite ideas and circulate them to the group, asking for input on which idea each member of the group liked best. When individuals can’t see or hear the responses of others in the group, the manager is more likely to get honest input. When in a group, people tend to look around the room for confirmation that their opinion is OK or to see which idea, already approved by the group, they can latch onto. Those same dynamics occur in any kind of meeting, whether by phone or video, but when a meeting is happening by phone, it’s harder to gauge how others feel before offering your own response. Video eliminates that great advantage of faceless phone meetings, reintroducing the group dynamics that water down fresh thinking. Suddenly, even though the meeting is happening remotely, you can see each other’s faces and look for approval before you offer your opinion. You once again can look around the room before speaking, seeing what everyone else thinks before sharing. Timidity is re-enabled. 

I would encourage managers to lean into the liberating gift phone meetings provide. You could conduct an experiment in which one week you conduct a major meeting solely by phone and then the following week you conduct it by video. Which meeting produced the best and freshest ideas? Then, if you wanted to be bold, you could try my idea of asking for ideas by e-mail, picking your top three, e-mailing the top three picks to each member of the group, and getting feedback one-by-one on which ideas seem best. You might be shocked at how much better the quality of ideas are when you dispense with the social dynamics of meetings (any type of meeting—phone or video).

Meetings, with their limiting social dynamics, are a poor way to generate exciting new ideas, but they’re great for socializing and getting to know each other. In our COVID-19 times, you could try a weekly touching-base video meeting that wouldn’t necessarily be about getting work done, but about re-establishing human connection with colleagues so everyone feels psychologically comforted and happy enough to focus on their work. 

With connection, rather than work, the goal of the meeting, the stray paw, whisker, or child’s hand brandishing Legos that makes it into the video frame is welcome. 

Do you think video meetings are more productive than phone-only meetings? What are the advantages of video meetings? Why is it an advantage to see the reactions of others before providing your input? Isn’t it inhibiting to watch for social approval before offering new ideas?


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