Not Every Work Call Needs to Be on Video

A woman holds a desk phone to her ear and puts her other hand to her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

When many of our lives went online earlier this year, most of us quickly learned about “Zoom fatigue.” It turns out that video calls, for work or for pleasure, are generally more draining than ordinary conversations because of the constant gaze of the camera, the lack of many of the nonverbal cues we typically rely on, and the slight delay in virtual responses.

Yet despite a growing recognition that video can be exhausting in a way other meeting formats aren’t, many offices have plunged enthusiastically into video as their primary remote communication method, and they show no signs of stopping. Often managers assume video is the closest thing to replicating the meetings they used to hold in person. But video, especially video from home during a pandemic, is different. This person who wrote to me put it well:

When our weekly meetings were in person, I wasn’t forced to stare directly at the eyeballs of everyone in the meeting while simultaneously looking at my own face and wondering if my teenage son, walking behind me on the way to the kitchen, is wearing pants. It’s not the same at all.

I have twice-daily Zoom check-ins with a smaller group, and three larger weekly meetings. I have started casually announcing, either audibly or through the chat feature, that I am turning my video off because I find it taxing. As the time drags by I’m noticing more coworkers doing the same.

Some poor souls work in offices that have so fervently embraced video that their entire workday is now spent on camera:

I am now at the point where I have a full 8 hours a day of conference calls. … At least they’re different meetings, so I can run to the bathroom between them and just claim my last meeting ran over. Sometimes I turn off my webcam purely so that I don’t have to put in the effort of keeping the pained expression off my face. At my last one-on-one, I told my boss that everything is fine except I CAN’T GET ANYTHING DONE and he suggested I block off my calendar with dedicated working time. Then the very next day, he overrode my dedicated working time with a mandatory video meeting that could have been an email.

That’s before we even get into how much information gets missed because of technical problems with video, as this person points out:

After almost 3 months of audio only conference calls, our office staff meetings are moving to Zoom, with video expected. First one was this morning. I have terrible Wi-Fi, and no options to improve it even if I wanted to pay more. The call this morning was pretty much 8 frozen heads that would change position occasionally, along with weird audio interference depending on who was unmuted. I’m going to miss far more information using video than I ever did when it was just audio through a phone line.

Yet for some reason, many managers—not all, but many—continue to push video, even when participants prefer other methods of connecting:

Recently my boss asked me to set up one-on-one check-ins with each of my staff to see how things are going. I did something like this back in March, when everyone was still acclimatizing to virtual teaching, and since then I’ve been in regular communication with my staff by email, text, and phone. I don’t feel disconnected from my staff or what they’re doing, but I understand why my boss thinks it’s important to do a more formal check-in so I complied.

I offered my staff an option of a Zoom or phone check-in, and while most of them opted for a Zoom call, two of them picked the phone. When my boss learned this, she asked me to rebook them for Zoom calls. (She did not tell me in advance that they needed to be Zoom check-ins.) I pushed back gently by explaining my thought process behind offering a choice, and she’s now firmly insisting that I rebook them to Zoom, that video calls are more engaging and will better help the instructor feel connected to me/the org, as well as sent me a bunch of articles about the benefits of video calls.

Of course, plenty of teams like video (usually the ones who aren’t stuck on it all day, every day). This person speaks for a lot of people who appreciate what video provides:

My team is finding that having at least some of our calls be over video is helpful in feeling like we’re all in sync. Not everyone is on video for the entirety of every call, but going for weeks or months without being “face to face” with our closest coworkers doesn’t work well for us. I know some remote teams manage it, and that’s great for them, but it’s too out of sync with the collaborative workplace culture we had when we were all in the office together.

And there are times when seeing facial expressions is truly valuable—during a sensitive performance conversation, for example, or when you need to gauge how well information is being absorbed, as this person notes:

I understand completely why people are resistant to video calls and sometimes it isn’t necessary. BUT it can be pretty difficult to present something when you have no way to gauge reactions. In person, if I say something and I see a teammate’s eyes widen, I can tell I said something unexpected or surprising and can delve more deeply into that point. Video calls aren’t a perfect replica of that due to lag and such, but it’s better than when everyone is listening in without video and muted (so we don’t hear background noise). It’s really easy to ramble or rush over things without some sort of feedback.

There is a place for video: when it’s made optional, or when it’s truly necessary, such as when you have so many participants that a phone call would be too chaotic or it’s vital to see facial expressions. Most crucially, though, video shouldn’t be the default. Too many offices have simply converted all the meetings that used to be in person to video without thinking through the cumulative drain that can have on people.

Back when more of us worked in offices, there was a movement, still very much needed, to ensure each meeting was really necessary. (Could this be an email instead? Is there another way to convey this information?) We need a similar movement now to push everyone to ask, “Do we really need video for this?” Sometimes the answer will be yes, but much of the time it will be no.