Stop With the Video Chats Already. Just Make a Voice Call.
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Stop With the Video Chats Already. Just Make a Voice Call.

Research shows frequent videoconferences can sap your brain and deplete your energy.

By JOANNA STERN
Fri, May 28, 2021 11:13amGrey Clock 4 min

Dear colleague and/or friend:

I’d love to do a call about this. And by “call” I mean absolutely NOT a video call. Let’s do a call-call. You know, those old things where we just hear each other’s beautiful voices. Whatever you do, don’t touch that webcam.

Looking forward to (audio) chatting,

Joanna

The time has come to be bold: Stop the nonstop video calling.

Allow me to remind you of the BPE (you know, the Before-Pandemic Era), a time long ago when every call didn’t require colour-coding your bookshelf background, firing up the webcam and staring into a human tic-tac-toe board for hours on end. Video calls used to be a rare treat. Now, they’re everyday soul suckers.

Really. There’s vampirical—I mean, empirical—proof. A high frequency of video calling can cause general, social, emotional, visual and motivational fatigue, researchers at the University of Gothenburg and Stanford University found in a recent study. Even Zoom’s chief executive, Eric Yuan, says he suffers from the dreaded “Zoom Fatigue.”

Look, I’m not saying all video calling must stop. I love video calling. Instantly see and hear people with little to no delay? It’s miraculous. My mom, who is hearing-impaired, struggled throughout my childhood to hear me on the phone. Now, she can see my son wherever she is, and the visual cues help her tremendously.

I’m just saying audio calls can be more productive—and they can sound better than ever.

But how do you know when to pick voice over video? And how do you make it happen without being the meeting jerk who just refuses to turn on the camera? After talking to researchers and technologists—and cutting back on my own video calls—I present you with five steps to regain your sanity.

Step 1: Ask, should this meeting just be an email?

Fact: There are too many meetings. So I beg of you, before deciding on the technological format, simply ask: Do we really need to meet at all?

Step 2: Understand the benefits of audio vs. video

Géraldine Fauville, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and the lead researcher on that aforementioned study, mapped out the main reasons video can be so cognitively draining:

• It’s a lot of looking at ourselves, which is unnatural and comes with self-evaluation and scrutiny. Called the mirror effect, this can be particularly intense for women. You can combat this with the self-hide option available in Zoom and Google Meet. Google has just added a number of features to address this specifically. Microsoft Teams’ new Together Mode was built to combat this, too.

• It’s a lot of close-up eye contact. In fact, the brain processes that sort of invasion of space as if it should lead to mating or fighting.

• It’s a lot of sitting and feeling trapped. You can’t get up and walk around during a video call.

• It’s a lot of nodding. “For you to communicate cues to the participant, you need to intensify the cues,” Dr. Fauville said. “So people nod more vigorously than if they were in the same room.”

No wonder we’re exhausted. So yes, limiting the number and length of video calls seems like the obvious answer. And as some of us kick-start the hybrid work life, that will happen naturally.

But voice calls aren’t just table scraps from our work-from-home buffet. They allow you to focus on what’s being said and give you real respite from the screen. I now do my weekly call with my boss on the phone. We reserve video for deeper conversations, like performance reviews.

I also still like to do video calls with colleagues I haven’t caught up with for a while, or for important meetings where reading facial expressions is crucial.

Step 3: Be clear it’s an audio call

You’ve decided that voice is the way to go for a call, now you’ve got to convey that to others.

Don’t waste precious meeting time having an awkward convo about this; be straight up before the call. “Hey, I’d like to do voice—no video—for this call. Work for you?” You can even put it on me: “I read this wonderful column in The Wall Street Journal about how too many video calls are bad.”

In a survey of employees, the University of California, Berkeley, found that 77% multitask during video calls. I called that out in a recent calendar invite: “Let’s do voice-only for this one,” I wrote to my colleagues. “We’re all going to cover each other’s faces with other windows on the screen anyway!” (Yep, we can see all of you, looking over at your second monitor!)

Step 4: Make the call

Even though I made my voice-call preferences known to my colleagues, I’m not just reaching for my phone. In fact, I’ve used all the big videoconferencing services—sans video. Zoom, Google Meet, Slack, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger all produce stable and clear calls if you have a good connection. Most sound better than cellular—especially if you have a good mic. But the best choice is however you can most easily reach your contact.

Slack has become my go-to for work. Since most of the folks already are there all day, it’s great for mimicking the quick desk drop-by. Hit the phone button and it automatically defaults to a voice call. (To add video, you have to tap the video icon.) With Slack audio use surging in the past year, the company has been piloting new group-audio features, an office variation of Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

Slack is also looking at ways to improve audio quality and make it easier to switch between desktop and mobile calls, Ali Rayl, the company’s vice president of product and customer experience, told me.

Call-quality-wise, FaceTime audio consistently sounds the best to me. I often talk to my editor via Apple’s service and he sounds crystal clear. The downside? Apple devices only.

Step 5: Try no-video days

“The responsibility of limiting Zoom fatigue is not just on the individuals,” Dr. Fauville told me. “We hope our findings inspire companies to rethink videoconferencing.”

So far, so good. Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser has started “Zoom-free Fridays,” a day free of internal video calls. The University of California, Berkeley, for the past year, has said no recurring meetings—of any kind—on Friday afternoons.

You may want to try a similar policy. Or at the very least start perfecting those extremely polite “You don’t want to see my face and I don’t want to see your face” emails.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 26, 2021.

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