It took a tech fail this week to remind me again of the inestimable value of face-to-face communication.
I joined a video call with two colleagues to introduce ourselves to a new external business contact. It was the first time we had met, so it was important to me to establish rapport, gauge their reaction to the brief I was describing, and get a real sense of our ability to work effectively together. Ultimately, the first interaction with any other human is about making a positive connection and creating trust.
A couple of minutes into the call, my video connection mysteriously dropped. Not froze; disappeared entirely. Sound remained, but no picture. I was left speaking to a black screen, not able to see anyone else on the call, and therefore oblivious to any of the visual cues I would normally rely on to help me interpret the response beyond the spoken words.
Of course, this is no different to a conventional phone call, which was quite a normal form of initial business introduction until 15 months ago, when the pandemic made meetings via video the new normal.
Now, in this introductory context, this forced ‘voice-only’ communication felt completely alien. Suddenly, stripped unexpectedly of the chance to see faces, sustain eye contact and observe body language, my ability to interpret the conversation was limited to words and tone of voice. It felt disorientating and unsettling.
Ultimately, the call went well, the brief was understood, next steps agreed. But I was left feeling as though the interaction was incomplete. We had a functional agreement but – for me – the ‘relationship’ was not established.
I’ve always been a firm believer in in-person meetings as the foundation of relationship building and positive collaboration. While the last year has proved that we can replicate some aspects of this virtually, this experience reinforced the role of non-verbal communication in how we connect with one another as human beings. We judge people by their smile, the sincerity of their greeting, the facial expressions that support or undermine their words.
According to data published on greatbusinessschools.org, our facial cues when we speak account for 55% of our communication, which explains why it feels so imbalanced to conduct a video call where one party chooses not to be on camera.
As we consider the return to the physical workplace and evaluate the role that home working and remote communication could play in our future, I’m sure we can all see the pros of reduced travel, and the operational efficiency that may be achieved with virtual communication.
But I for one think our quality of life and our scope to succeed will be diminished if we fail to acknowledge the unique value that can only be created when humans connect ‘in real life’.