In their study of casual work interactions, Whittaker et al. (1994) concluded that coordination works best among people who are physically located in the same place because they have more opportunities to find others who are available to talk. Let’s face it, as much as we love Facebook and Twitter, talking to someone face-to-face still offers the most bang for your buck (Fish et al., 1992).
Face-to-face gives you immediate, continuous, personalized feedback to meet your specific needs with minimal ambiguity, and there’s something about eye contact, facial expressions, and seeing the words come out of someone’s mouth that makes the response more “true” and motivational. Personally speaking, I’m more likely to trust a direct “yes” from someone’s mouth and do something about it than from an email or memo with the same information. The special quality of face-to-face is such that at Stanford Hospital, telephone and email are used to set up meetings, but decisions are only made face-to-face.
This makes videoconferencing a natural candidate for getting that face-to-face feedback when physical face-to-face is not possible. In fact, Fish et al. (1992) found that when they created a prototype videoconference system that was easy and convenient to use, people always preferred to use the videophone over the audio-only phone. (I’d like to add, by the way, that VSee is incredibly convenient to install and use—I mean incredibly convenient.) Keep in mind that while it’s encouraging to find that easy accessibility encourages videophone usage, I don’t recommend using it in all cases. Video is often too intimate or unnecessary for some communications. (See Tips on When to Use Email, Phone, or Video.) At VSee, we actually train all new hires in when to use video and when not to use video.
Convenience isn’t the only ingredient promoting unplanned interactions through videoconferencing. In spite of frequent use of their test system, Fish et al. were disappointed that people used it more like a phone—scheduling, confirming status, and asking quick questions—rather than to actually get collaborative work done. The problem they found was their system lacked the tools to complete tasks, such as sharing work screens, pointing at diagrams, or handing a document over to someone (which VSee also makes very easy to do). This is a big problem considering that one case study found that over 50% of casual conversations were document-related (Whittaker et al, 1994). This is also why videoconferencing without work-sharing tools is a dud and why people aren’t loving Skype.
So to sum up: Two important ingredients of a videoconferencing system that gets those casual conversations working are 1) ease of use and 2) proper work-sharing tools. A third key component I’ll talk more about later is design that allows you to initiate contact without being a nuisance.