Video chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust — and that's bad for business: Don Pittis

Research shows essential cues of real life interaction from pheromones to body language just don’t work on video chats as the lockdown exhausts reserves of office sociability and excludes newbies.

In-person encounters are crucial for establishing trust and building successful teams, according to research

Online video chats may look like the real thing but the lack of real-life contact short circuits a part of the brain essential for understanding non-verbal cues. And that's bad for business. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Ever get the sense there is something vital missing on those Zoom meetings? If so, you're not alone — and there is Canadian science to back you up.

As political and business leaders push to reopen the economy hoping to get restaurants, retailers and factories making money again, there may be good economic reasons for putting at least some of the work-from-home crowd back into the office as fast as it's safe to do so.

Canadian research on "computer-mediated communication," begun long before the current lockdown, shows video chat is an inadequate substitute for real-life interaction. The real thing, dependant on non-verbal cues, is extraordinarily more effective in creating rapport and getting ideas across.

Not only that, but the familiarity and trust we currently feel with coworkers during the lockdown's remote calls rests on connections remembered from back when we sat at a nearby desk or met for lunch.

Bad for business

As the lockdown stretches out and the mix of colleagues changes, it may be almost impossible to establish healthy trusting working relationships using remote video chat tools alone.

That's bad for business, said organizational behaviour specialist Mahdi Roghanizad from Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Business. The reason: getting a good reading on your fellow workers has been repeatedly shown to be essential for business efficiency, reaching common goals and establishing trust.

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Many people are feeling drained because of an increase in video conferencing and psychologists have started describing it as “Zoom fatigue.”

It is why teams that worked remotely even before the pandemic lockdown always met periodically in person. The latest research shows human-to-human bonding is like a kind of intuitive magic.

"Say you are seeing a person for the first time," explained Roghanizad. "After two to five minutes of interaction, you will have a better chance of a more accurate prediction about their cooperativeness or generosity. This is how our brain evolved."

The crucial point is that merely "seeing" the person is not enough. 

"This ability goes away when the same interaction happens in video-to-video communication as is happening today through Zoom or Google Meet or Skype," explained Roghanizad, who started his career as an electrical engineer and has since used the tools of hard science to investigate the failures of computerized communication.

The scientist's interest began more than decade ago with research quoted in the Harvard Business Review that showed face-to-face communication was 34 per cent more effective than email in persuading people to donate to a good cause.

To those of us today with loaded electronic in-boxes, the results of that research may not be surprising. At the time, however, it was considered revolutionary because people in the study expected outcomes for email and personal contact to be about the same.

The results inspired Roghanizad and others to look into the reasons why person-to-person contact increased bonding and established a sense of trustworthiness.

The smell of success

Candidates included pheromones — the subtle fragrances we give off — plus a series of muted hand and body gestures such as crossing your arms and leaning back that in various combinations researchers have shown inspire confidence and "are predictive of economic behaviour," according to one research paper.

Roghanizad's most recent research is helping to prove is that without real-life contact, those non-verbal cues simply don't register in a key interactive part of the human brain responsible for what scientists call "theory of mind" —that creation of understanding between people working in groups.

A dog looks at Brussels Grand Place square as restaurants and bars reopen after the COVID-19 lockdown earlier this month. Even a pair of sunglasses can shut down a part of the brain responsible for generating the theory of mind essential to understanding your friends and co-workers. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

"Eye contact is required to activate that theory of mind and when the eye contact is not there, the whole other signal information is not processed by our brain," said Roghanizad.

His research has shown that even wearing sunglasses short circuits that portion of the brain and shuts the process down.

'Multifaceted nature of the conversation'

Frances Westley, author of the book Getting to Maybe on how to influence those around us toward social change, said she has noticed a flatness in communication in her frequent video chats perhaps similar to having a conversation with an acquaintance who is wearing dark sunglasses.

"The quality of the interaction and the satisfaction of the interaction, even with people you know quite well, is definitely diminished," said Westley, a leader at the University of Waterloo's Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience.

Parliament meets using a video link. Critics say this form of online government makes it harder to trust politicians - and harder to figure out who is lying. (Michelle Rempel Garner/Twitter)

That may be one reason why people locked down in their own apartments are so anxious to get out and socialize, hungering for the primal brain-to-brain contact and empathy implied by the theory of mind. It may also be another reason for "Zoom fatigue" as people struggle to find information that just isn't available on screen.

"The richness of the multifaceted nature of the conversation is deprived and because you are seeing the person you expect to have it," said Westley, who suggests people meet for a physically distanced walk or conversation to reach a more complete understanding.

Research from the world of criminology has shown the impression that video provides more information is spurious. Studies show the ability to recognize if someone's lying is actually deceived by video and that you can make a better judgement from listening to audio alone or even by reading a transcript.

For those working from home, even if the video chat experience isn't as satisfying, dealing with colleagues you have worked with before allows you to use the vestiges of trust and familiarity developed during previous live interactions, said Roghanizad. Meeting new people in chats is entirely different, leaving confident collaboration seriously impaired.

As the lockdown stretches on, for hiring, for making deals, making new contacts or working with new staff or people in new positions, the lack of in-person communication will increasingly create barriers to effective business operations as institutions use up what is essentially a precious reserve of social capital.

This is one more reason that the work from home revolution caused by the pandemic may not be as long-lasting or as complete as some advocates have recently suggested.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis