Believe it or not, you act differently when you’re on a phone call.
And different from that on video.
Oh, and you reply differently via chat.
And why did you respond that way in email?
Folks, it’s not news, but the medium informs the communication. Obviously we think everyone should be video collaborating and there are immense benefits to doing so. However, as with anything worth doing, there are things to prepare for so your collaborative efforts will run as smoothly as possible.
According to the book Challenges in Virtual Collaboration (Lynne Wainfan and Paul K. Davis, RAND Corporation, National Defense Research Institute, 2005):
All media change the context of the communication somewhat, generally reducing cues used to (1) regulate and understand conversation, (2) indicate participants’ perspective, power, and status, and (3) move the group toward agreement.
In VC (videoconferencing), AC (audioconferencing), and CMC (computer-mediated communication), participants tend to cooperate less with those at other “nodes” and more often shift their opinions toward extreme or risky options than they do in FTF collaboration.
In VC and AC collaboration, local coalitions can form in which participants tend to agree more with those in the same room than with those on the other end of the line. There is also a tendency in AC to disagree with those on the other end of the communication link.
CMC can reduce efficiency (as measured in time to solution), status effects, domination, participation, and consensus. It has been shown useful in broadening the range of inputs and ideas. However, CMC has also been shown to increase polarization, deindividuation, and disinhibition. That is, individuals may become more extreme in their thinking, less sensitive to interpersonal aspects of their messages, and more honest and candid.
And that’s just from the summary of the book! They state these are gleaned from roughly 40 years of various groups in various places researching exactly what we do. The question is, in an increasingly tech-mediated world, how do we minimize the pitfalls of this communication?
The answer: Skilled Moderation
You don’t need to hire professionals to handle your meetings and calls for you. I think we’re all familiar enough with the technology to have a sense of it. The authors suggest several practices that I wholeheartedly agree with:
1) Break the ice first. At least when reasonable. For groups of roughly 10 and under, have people talk a little about themselves. If possible, have people that are not colocated call each other separately before the business discussion and talk a little about themselves. This will cut down on coalitions.
2) Make participants aware of the pitfalls. Simply by being warned about our inclination to change behavior for VC, AC, and CMC, participants can make conscious decisions to follow the positive inclinations and reject the negative.
3) Pick a moderator. This is tricky. First, the moderator must have sufficient knowledge of the topic at hand. Second, they must have a keen eye and knowledge of the shortcomings of each medium. It is their job to help the flow of discussion in the presence of missed cues, reign in inappropriate comments and behavior, add context for comments that would be understood in another setting, and just generally make sure the goals of the meeting are met.
It isn’t easy to remember these actions, and often we skip over them. Thankfully we’ve reached a certain tolerance for altered behavior in these new mediums. However, doing our best to follow those three suggestions should help immensely in avoiding unnecessary disagreements, hurt feelings, and inefficiency.