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Is Remote Work Dumbing Us Down?

July 15, 2021

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The benefits of remote work, when logistically feasible, are immense.  Employees have more flexibility with their day, and employers have found that employees tend to work longer.  It has forced employers to rethink the future workplace. But there are drawbacks. 

Employees are human and humans are generally social creatures.  Due to limited social interaction, a number of studies are concluding that this new work environment is dumbing us down.   “Zoom fatigue” is widely prevalent as people grow tired of the lack of human interaction.

New research from Carnegie Mellon also suggests that using Zoom for team interactions may not be particularly effective and might actually be making our teams less intelligent.  When working in a team, it generally allows for the best effort in collective intelligence, which is the ability of a group to solve a wide range of problems.  With the use of virtual teams, it lessens the collective intelligence, according to the study. Although technology can replicate face-to-face meetings, it does not allow for non-visual communication, which may be more important for participants in a meeting when linked with audio cues.  Thereby collective intelligence is negatively impacted by the failure to see or recognize these cues that would be apparent in a live meeting.

“We found that video conferencing can actually reduce collective intelligence,” the Carnegie Mellon researchers say. “This is because it leads to more unequal contribution to conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony. Our study underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access.”

Other research from MIT has demonstrated that the ability to empathize and interact with others is key to successful teamwork, but is difficult to measure online as participants may not have access to in-person cues.

Eye contact is important whether in live or video meetings.  If having a video meeting, it is important that all participants have their camera on.  Research from Tampere University in Finland highlights the importance of eye contact for collaboration.  The study found that eye contact during video calls triggers the same kind of psycho-physiological responses as eye contact face-to-face.  The findings emerged after the researchers examined the physical reactions to eye contact in a range of situations, including face-to-face and via a live video call.

However, since a team meeting is generally more than two people, eye contact may be generic as opposed to specific to the conversation at hand.   Research from Florida Atlantic University reveals that a participant’s gaze is often altered during video conferencing, precisely because they believe the other person can see them and they always have to be “on.” Studies have shown that people are highly sensitive to the gaze direction of other people.  Therefore, eye contact could be minimalized and those social clues are somewhat dismissed given the circumstances.

If everyone isn’t using their camera, that puts people at a disadvantage.  They may assume that the team member off camera is not participating, maybe doing other things, and not taking the discussions seriously.  As a result, this could lead to more conflict among team members, increased resistance to ideas, and reduced collective intelligence.

Therefore, it is important to have set rules in place for all video or remote meetings, and unless there is a good reason otherwise, all team members must follow and participate in the same way.  Electronic device fatigue is real, as is electronic device addiction (do you keep your cellphone on at the dinner table?). 

When rethinking the workplace, employers must also rethink the workforce and their interaction among each other. 

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