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Have Zoom calls affected our ability to communicate in-person?

Zoom Businesswoman with headphones smiling during video conference. Multiracial male and female professionals are attending online meeting. They are discussing business strategy.
Be aware of your body language and non-verbal clues like eye contact and facial expressions when on Zoom calls. Photo: Getty (Morsa Images via Getty Images)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic marked a shift towards remote and hybrid working, many of us are more likely to speak to co-workers on Zoom (ZM) or Teams (MSFT) instead of in-person.

Video calls are an efficient way to connect with our colleagues — we can host meetings, share screens and chat with our colleagues instantaneously without having to leave our homes.

Not only is it convenient, more people — such as working parents — are able to stay in the workforce while juggling other responsibilities like childcare.

However, spending more time together virtually may have had a lasting impact on how we communicate face-to-face and how we connect with people we work with.

Important of non-verbal communication

When we do meet our co-workers face-to-face, it’s possible we may feel more socially awkward. Ayesha Murray, a career coach, says this may be because it can be difficult to build relationships over Zoom.

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“Remote working has made it harder to build meaningful relationships and rapport with our colleagues,” she says.

“There are less opportunities for small talk and impromptu conversations. When we communicate in-person, we use more than just our words. Our body language and non-verbal cues all contribute to getting our message across.”

Read more: How performance-related pay affects our mental health

Language researchers consider non-verbal cues — the way we listen, move, react and gesticulate — to be more reliable than what we say when it comes to conveying emotion. Having to communicate via screens can create a barrier to those subtle visual cues that provide us with information about what the other person is thinking or feeling.

While all gestures are visible in face-to-face communication, we are often cut off from the chest up on video chats, so these non-verbal prompts may not be in the frame. So when we do meet in person, we may not have as many reference points, giving rise to feelings of discomfort or awkwardness.

We can form negative opinions of people on video calls

Virtual communication is also rife with possibilities for misunderstanding and assuming the worst. In fact, some studies suggest the nuances of video calls may change how we perceive a colleague and their abilities. This can alter how we feel about them when we meet them in real life.

According to a study by German researchers, delays on video calls can shape negative views of people. They found delays of more than 1.2 seconds made people view the speaker as less friendly, attentive and conscientious. So when we pass them in the office, we may have already formed a negative opinion of them and find it more challenging or anxiety-inducing to chat to them in-person.

Switching between virtual and face-to-face

Having to make a psychological switch between virtual and in-person communication can also be challenging for hybrid workers. If we’re used to video calls, it can be difficult when we do see colleagues in-person because we have to adapt our speech to fit the situation.

Video calls change the way we speak to each other. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, we have to take stricter turns when speaking to minimise overlapping speech and avoid interruptions. As a result, video calls have a different conversational pace and flow.

Read more: Flexible Working Bill: What does it mean for workers and employees?

At the start of the pandemic, this change may have felt awkward as we navigated an unfamiliar form of communication. Now, many of us have adjusted to this way of interacting — so much so that it can feel strange and overwhelming when we do meet up in-person. We may find ourselves tripping over our words or forgetting how to act.

How to improve communication over video calls

Although video calls come with challenges, it’s possible to create meaningful relationships with co-workers and to improve how we communicate both virtually and face-to-face.

First, Murray recommends creating time and space for connection. “Make a conscious effort to get to know your colleagues and tap into those natural conversation opportunities,” she says. When you know someone better, you may be less likely to misinterpret what is said in a video call.

And while video calls are convenient, face-to-face communication still has value — especially when it comes to problem-solving and group work.

Read more: What to do if your company backtracks on remote working

Murray suggests thinking about what you can achieve if you meet someone in-person and if the task would be more difficult online.

It’s normal to feel awkward when seeing people in real life, especially if you’re used to working solo. Give yourself time to feel uncomfortable and adjust to socialising and working with others again and cut yourself some slack.

“Finally, be aware of your body language and non-verbal clues like eye contact and facial expressions when on video calls,” she says. “Listen effectively, pay attention and give feedback if appropriate.”

Watch: These five things keep employees happy

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