In 1964, AT&T’s Bell Labs debuted a prototype of the first video phone service at the World’s Fair in New York. The Picturephone, which was equipped with a video camera and a screen, allowed curious New Yorkers to chat with and simultaneously look at people using the same device in Anaheim, California. The high-profile demonstration elicited enormous public interest, but the thrill faded when AT&T tried to sell corporate clients on an updated version a few years later. AT&T discontinued the product in 1972 due to a disappointing lack of demand. “It turned out that it wasn’t entirely clear that people wanted to be seen on a telephone,” AT&T’s corporate historian, Sheldon Hochheiser, told the New York Times much later.
Five decades on, we would seem to be living in a golden age of video conferencing. Anyone with a computer or smartphone and a broadband connection can broadcast to colleagues, clients, or managers at a moment’s notice. As more work is done remotely, video calls have become an increasingly unremarkable part of office life. In 2014, more than half of all employees used video in at least 25 percent of their conference calls, according to a survey.
Much has improved since the days of the Picturephone: picture quality, audio quality, ease of setup, and cost. But it’s still not clear that people want to be watched on a screen at the office. Video conferencing counteracts the benefits of working from home, makes participants distracted and self-conscious, and fails to reproduce the social benefits of meeting in person. Even when the technology works perfectly—and, in my experience, it rarely does, dependent as it is on the strength of several people’s internet connections—video conferencing combines the worst aspects of all other methods of communication.
When you have a team spread around the country—or a team that just likes to work from home—video conferencing seems like a way to make people feel like they’re together in the same room. However, many people work from home because they don’t want to be in the same room as other people. One of the most appealing parts of working from home is slouching on the sofa in your pajamas with unkempt hair on days when you’re not up for making yourself presentable. Video conferencing forces you to make yourself, and your surroundings, presentable.
When you dial into video conference calls from home, your colleagues “can see the dirty dishes, the laundry pile, or all of the paper work thrown across your desk,” says Tech.Co, sounding like your most undermining frenemy, before adding, “If your background is a little messy, simply clean it up or choose another location. Also be sure to dress appropriately for the meeting.” With video conferencing, telecommuters can no longer focus exclusively on their work—they have to spruce up their environment and their apparel. Of course, some people will welcome the opportunity to make working from home feel a little more like working from the office, but for others, this kind of polish defeats the purpose of working from home.
Once we’ve carefully chosen our backdrop and combed our hair, we can’t just log in and forget about what we look like. Video conferencing preys on our vanity and distracts us with horrifying images of our own blemished, asymmetrical faces. If you claim you’ve never adjusted the angle or height of your laptop to try to make yourself look more attractive on a conference call, you’re lying. And indeed, video conferencing companies encourage this kind of narcissism. “No matter what device you are using, make sure that your camera is straight in front of you as opposed to looking up at you,” suggests project management software company Redbooth. “This will be the most flattering angle for your face.” I’d rather not have to worry about camera placement and flattering angles while I’m talking to my colleagues—and when I’m in the same room as them, I almost never think about how I look. But on video calls, self-consciousness is a constant even after you’ve found the ideal camera angle: You can observe the effect of every change in expression, every glance to one side, every shift in posture. And god forbid you eat or drink anything. “The only thing that’s acceptable is a small drink of water or coffee every now and then,” says video conferencing platform Clickmeeting. “But since you’re so close up on camera, keep it to a minimum.” I might feel better about video conferencing if its proponents didn’t unfailingly make it sound like an exercise in my own worst navel-gazing tendencies.
When you’re not getting distracted by how many chins you have, video conferencing allows you to get distracted by anything and everything else. It is impossible not to read your email, type a quick note to your colleague, and surf the web while you’re on a video conference call, because (assuming you’re using the webcam on your laptop or desktop) you’re already staring at a screen with infinite possible windows. Of course, it’s possible to multitask when you’re on a traditional, audio-only conference call, too—but when you’re on the phone you can close your computer.
All these drawbacks would be tolerable if video conferencing facilitated better conversations than talking on the phone—but it doesn’t. Proponents say it gives participants more visual cues than a phone conversation, allowing them to respond to their colleagues’ facial expressions and body language. But the facial expressions and body language transmitted during a video meeting are so stilted and self-conscious that they don’t convey much useful information at all. (Plus you may not even get much body language—sometimes you only see people’s faces and maybe the tops of their shoulders.) Even worse, true eye contact is impossible, since you have to look at the camera in order to appear to your colleagues like you’re looking at them.
It’s easy to forgive people’s verbal tics, weird facial expressions, and conversational faux pas when you’re sitting in the same room as them; we do it unconsciously. But when we’re watching someone on a screen, we assume the worst about them. In a study of simulated job interviews, would-be hiring directors rated would-be candidates lower—and vice versa—when the interview took place via video conference call than when it took place in person. Technical problems exacerbate this issue: In one study where participants video chatted with strangers with a 1.2-second delay, they rated their interlocutor “as less attentive, friendly, and self-disciplined than if there was no delay.” We unconsciously blame our conversation partners for the limitations of the technology we use to communicate with them, which tempers whatever benefit we get from seeing their faces on a screen.
The social benefits of in-person meetings—the strengthened sense of camaraderie—are entirely absent from video calls. When you’re in a conference room with other people, you inevitably and naturally make eye contact, smile, and make small talk before the meeting begins. At the beginning of all the video conference calls I’ve been on, people sit stone-faced and silent, their eyes most likely focused on some other window on their computer screen, as they wait for the team leader to arrive and begin the meeting. Occasionally someone will say something approximating small talk, but the conversation feels forced, because no one wants to be the creep who asks too many questions about a colleague’s houseplant. (Seeing into your colleagues’ homes, in most cases, feels like a transgression of healthy workplace boundaries.) If colleagues bond during video conference calls, it’s more likely to happen when they Slack each other to gossip and kvetch about their colleagues than when they talk to the group.
Video conferencing is surely not going anywhere. But I wish team leaders would ask themselves whether they really need to see small two-dimensional reproductions of their employees’ faces for every meeting. In-person meetings will always win for communication, engagement, and bonding. But when in-person meetings aren’t possible, I’d choose a good, old-fashioned phone call over a live video stream almost every time. As long as we’re in different places, I’d rather focus on what people have to say than on how we all look.