Video chat apps like Skype and FaceTime make it easy to connect with friends, family and colleagues across long distances. But new research suggests that video chat in the workplace can hurt your performance on the job.

What part of video chat may be hurting my job performance?

In video chat apps — like Skype, Google Hangouts or FaceTime — you get to see the people on the other end of the call. But you also see yourself, off to the side or down in the corner in a small window.

If you stop and think about it, the ability to see yourself in a meeting is kind of unusual. In a face-to-face meeting, you can't see yourself. Researchers at Marquette University in Wisconsin wanted to know: Is the ability to see yourself during a video call a good thing or a bad thing? Or, as assistant professor of management Martin Hassell puts it: "How does someone seeing their own video feed affect their communication?"

In other words, Hassell and his colleagues wanted to find out if seeing your own video feed has a measurable impact on teamwork, collaboration or job performance.

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Researchers at Marquette University say video chat apps should let users hide their own video feed. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

How did the researchers measure this?

They designed an experiment with two separate groups. Each group participated in a video conference and were asked to complete a task together. Basically, they had to solve a problem that involved a lot of communication and collaboration, all of which happened over video chat.

The only difference was that in the first group, participants could see their own video feed while the second group couldn't. Afterwards, the researchers measured how well the team accomplished their task, how long it took them and how satisfied they were, both with the process and their solution.

What were the results?

This is where things get really interesting, according to Hassell: "On average, there was a significantly higher level of performance for the teams where the individuals did not see themselves when they were communicating. We also found that there were some differences in satisfaction among the teams: the individuals who did not see themselves on the camera felt more satisfied with the entire communication."

The researchers don't have a definitive answer as to why this is. But they suspect it's related to what psychologists call "objective self-awareness." When you see yourself on-screen, it takes your focus away from the task at hand. You're thinking about how you look, sound and act, instead of focusing on the work.

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Research subjects who could not see their own video feed during a video conference reported feeling more satisfied with the meeting and work accomplished. (Darren Staples/Reuters)

What does this mean for people who video conference regularly at work?

The paper makes a number of recommendations. The first is simply to be aware of this phenomenon: to know that if you're seeing yourself on-screen in a video conference, there's a chance it's negatively impacting your teamwork and collaboration. He also has recommendations for app makers and video chat service providers: "Put in the functionality so that a person has control over whether they see their own feed or not." 

Hassell says most video chat apps don't have the option to turn off your own video feed. But, if you can turn it off, you should. And if you can't, he recommends trying to ignore it. Your performance at work should improve, he says.

There's also a low-tech way to deal with this: you can put a sticky note on your monitor to cover up your own image.

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Researchers found when you see yourself on screen, it takes your focus away from the task at hand. (CBC)

Why is it important to understand and improve how remote teams work together?

The short answer is that remote work, virtual teams and video conferencing are on the rise. An estimated 46 per cent of organizations use virtual teams, and in a report last year from the International Data Group, about 75 per cent of senior managers are expected to replace conventional conferencing technologies with video conferencing.

If the trend is towards more virtual teams and more video conferencing, we need to question some of the design decisions inherent in these technologies and better understand how these new technologically mediated forms of work actually impact the work that's happening. Because, speaking personally, I'm on a lot of video calls, and I'd like to avoid having a sticky note permanently attached to my screen.