Video Conferencing should be better than in-person meetings

In an unprecedented year with widespread lockdowns, video conferencing has become a part of everyday life for most knowledge workers. This has led to Zoom receiving a >$100B valuation, at the time of writing. Video conferencing and other collaboration tools, have led many companies to report that their levels of productivity have been maintained or even improved.

Yet despite all this talk of the benefits of remote work, video conferencing is still in its infancy. Video conferencing remains a poor substitute for in-person meetings and many executives have been posing important questions about how remote work will affect company culture and long-term productivity, such as:

Video conferencing won’t entirely answer these questions, that’ll depend a lot on the specific company asking them. But, better video conferencing technology will help make working remotely more feasible for companies across the board.

There are two focus areas to make video conferencing better:

  • Video conferencing focus on the unique advantages that digital has over in-person for specific use cases
  • Solidify video conferencing ability to adhere to core conversation principles by minimizing latency, building backchannelling, and increasing video quality

Build video conferencing around use cases

Currently, video conferencing is one size fits all, no matter the use case or type of meeting.

The biggest varying factor for the video conferencing design is how many people are in the meeting and if someone is sharing their screen. This design carries over from in-person meetings, where as you add more people the room size changes, seats get added, and screens get bigger.

If video conferencing continues to focus on just mirror in-person meetings, video conferencing will always underperform. It’ll always be an imperfect approximation, not the true in-person experience.

Video conferencing is digital first and the experience should be also. This means focusing on the unique advantages of video conferencing rather than trying to replicate in-person meetings digitally. Each video conference meeting should be customizable by the creator and attendees to accomplish a specific goal. For example, what would a meeting look life it was designed for:

  • A team brainstorm?
  • A 1:1 conversation with your manager?
  • A company all-hands?
  • A pitch to a prospective customer?
  • A financial review of the company’s performance?

Follow core conversation principles

Human conversations have certain universal behaviors. These principles are true regardless of use case and are fundamental for video conferencing to get right in order to be superior to in-person meetings.

Minimize latency

To have anywhere close to an equal footing with in-person meetings, video conferencing needs to target latency of <50 milliseconds.

Human conversations have a natural flow and rhythm. As soon as one person finishes talking, the other starts. There is a universal tendency to minimize the silence between turns and not overlap. Research suggests the average silence gap between two people in a conversation is just 200 milliseconds. And this miniscule gap is relatively consistent across cultures, rising to 470 for Danish speakers and falling to just 7 for Japanese speakers.

Even when these small silence gaps occur, it’s rather uncommon for two people to talk at the same time, happening about 17% of time. This is a big reason why video conferencing feels so unsatisfying — instead of a 200 millisecond silence gap and 17% overlap, video conferencing has a 1+ second silence gap and 50%+ overlap.

Build ‘backchanneling’ into the product

You know when you hear something you’re shocked by and you let out an audible gasp or when a friend is telling you a story and you say “uh-huh” in agreement?

This is backchanneling. Backchannel is a way the listener consciously shows the speaker their reaction or understanding. It’s a quick verbal response to tell the speaker how you are feeling. As with conversation gaps, backchanneling appears to be a universal human behavior, although the exact behavior changes by language and culture.

Without backchanneling, conversations feel shallower. Video conferencing must build in other ways to backchannel.

Maximize video quality

Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language in the 1950’s, found that the total impact of a message is ~7% verbal, ~38% vocal, and ~55% nonverbal. Although the relative weight is debated, researchers agree that body language is a powerful communication tool. Hence, the reason video conferencing, not phone calls, took off with the switch to remote work.

Video conferencing allows you to see people’s faces. To maintain this strength, it’s fundamental that the actual video be very high quality. You should be able to see the small nuances and reactions of people’s facial expressions.

It’s Day 1 for video conferencing and I’m excited to see where the technology goes from here.

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