The Many Shortcomings of Virtual Communication

The Many Shortcomings of Virtual Communication

We rely on virtual communication for long-distance meetings and collaboration across time zones. It’s practical, it’s usually easy to use, and it’s cheap—or at least cheaper than flying in people from all around the globe for a face-to-face.

But it turns out there are a lot of reasons we shouldn’t rely on virtual meeting technology as a slide-in replacement for in-person communication. Yes, we need it, and it’s here to stay, but on many levels it comes up short, even to the point of damaging teams, relationships, progress, and competitiveness.

So says communication coach and theorist Dr. Nick Morgan in his new book Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. We don’t realize, he says, how much we depend on facial expression, the subtleties of vocal intonation, and body language to derive important meaning. Verbal communication—just the words—stripped of these nonverbals leaves us without important parts of the message.

Missing Information

It turns out that it also leaves us bored.

I’ve wondered before why webinars and conference calls are harder to pay attention to than live classes and in-person meetings. I thought it was just me. But one factor explained in this book concerns vocal range. Many voice technologies condense the vocal range to the minimum required for conveying intelligible human speech, stripping out the overtones and undertones of speech and effectively removing emotion from the voice. That, the author says, is “why audio conferences are so boring.” In fact, the design of all virtual communication—email, voicemail, videoconferences, and other combinations of digitized voice and video—have pretty much “had the emotional component intentionally engineered out of them,” Dr. Morgan says.

It goes some way towards explaining why leading a remote team using digital technology primarily is always unsatisfying. We want to know how leaders feel, in addition to what they want us to do day to day, and that’s a lot harder to pick up from a conference call than an actual meeting. It’s why most leaders at some point say “I need to be there,” and they get on a plane. They know the connection to the team needs strengthening and that even frequent virtual meetings just don’t do it as well as face-to-face.

Compensating for the Difficulty

Luckily, the author doesn’t just leave us with the many problems of trying to communicate virtually. He also makes recommendations about how to improve the experience, now that we know technically why it’s unsatisfying. One is, at the beginning of virtual meetings, check in to find out how people are before launching into the subject at hand. That helps compensate for the emotional flatness of the virtual connection.  It may seem a little artificial—i.e., people have to tell us in so many words how their day is—but it’s far better than not knowing. Unlike what some people think of check-ins, they’re not just frivolous chitchat interludes. They’re supplying necessary information that technology has left us otherwise bereft of.

Another suggestion: shorten the meeting time. If the technology constraints are making meetings more boring, let’s not prolong the agony. Recognizing that attendees’ attention will waver because it’s virtual, anticipate the problem. Just because in-person meetings are an hour long, that doesn’t mean virtual meetings should be. Remember, it’s not a slide-in replacement for live and in-person.

And my personal favorite recommendation from the book: make some “fun stuff” a mainstream part of the meeting. He suggests adding some social tasks to the agenda to help people better connect, like trivia questions or “spot polls” on the events of the day.

I’ll add one of my own. We had a virtual team meeting every Monday morning very early at one of the places I worked. About half the team was in India, and most of us had never met the India team in person. They were pleasant enough on the phone, but the personal connection to them was weak. So one week, between meetings, the meeting leader asked the India team if they would take pictures of themselves and email them to him, one headshot of each person. They did. He printed them, and before everyone arrived for the next Monday morning meeting, he taped each of the pictures to empty chairs in our meeting room. We had faces to go with the names! Everyone got a kick out of it. So then we took headshots of ourselves, emailed them to the India team, and they did the same.

Silly? Maybe. But it helped.

Dr. Morgan says that virtual communication methods have basically taken a three-dimensional world and rendered it in two dimensions, removing the depth of understanding we get from visual cues and the nuance of intonation. We’re looking at a two-dimensional person, not one in full depth, and we miss things like the physical cues that they’re ready to hand off the conversation to someone else, or they’re not, or that they’re hesitant to proceed or approve, or a whole raft of other meanings we perceive in person far more easily than we can virtually, if we can at all.

We’re unable, too, to make use of our own very important mirror neurons, the function in our brain that allows us to match someone else’s emotion. We do this unconsciously. It’s why, for example, when someone tells us they got into a fender bender on the way to work, we grimace back at their grimace.  It’s compassion in action, and it’s a lot harder to make that kind of connection virtually, perhaps impossible. And yet this kind of facial acknowledgement is very much a part of our conversation. Without it, we may feel the other guy doesn’t care or didn’t even hear the depth or earnestness of our concern. If you’ve ever left a conference call thinking, “They so didn’t get it,” perhaps that’s why.

Five Shortcomings

The book starts with the five shortcomings of virtual communication, beginning with lack of feedback, lack of empathy, and three more I won’t tell you because you wouldn’t want me to spoil it for you, would you? Then it more closely examines email and texting, webinars, and conference calls. If any of those forms of connecting are regulars for you, this is a book you’ll want to consult so that you can compensate for all the shortcomings you’re now either overlooking or unaware of.

There are ways to make virtual communication less dreadful, and it starts with examining, objectively and realistically, why it’s dreadful in the first place. This book does that, and whether you’ve read everything about leading meetings or nothing at all, I recommend you read this one.

Full disclosure: Nick Morgan is a friend, whom I met (virtually, I might add) because I admire his work. I read the manuscript as part of a review team earlier this year for Harvard Business Review press, and I’ve been waiting for months to be able to tell you about it. It hit the stands a few weeks ago.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

3 thoughts on “The Many Shortcomings of Virtual Communication

  1. And people wonder why productivity is not increasing… All these compensatory tricks take effort and time, and leave less energy to devote to the actual reasons for having the conference, producing slower and less effective solutions. The authors seem to be unaware of “virtual room” technology that was commercialized more than ten years ago. I used virtual rooms then with great effect to have weekly meetings with colleagues on the other side of the ocean, and they provide a teleconferencing experience that is just as good as being there, except for the inability to physically shake hands and the inability to go to lunch together after the meeting.

    Just like managers who impose noisy, distracting “open plan offices” in the name of lower costs, with bogus excuses of greater creativity in jobs that really need focus, the low-end communication methods that are the norm actually end up stifling productivity in the name of reducing costs to the absolute minimum needed to get anything done at all.

  2. This article suggests that a system designed to pass intelligible human speech uses only the band 85-225 Hz. This is technically incorrect and surprising for the IEEE to publish. I did not read further.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ken. The article has been edited to remove the reference to the basic range for the human voice (85-255 Hz), which was, as written, unintentionally misleading. We hope that the edit clarifies the author’s intent that some virtual communications systems utilize only a limited frequency range, effectively stripping emotion from voice transmissions.

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