I’ll Use Videoconferencing, If You Promise Not to Look at Me!

by on March 7th, 2015
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We’ve all been there. Trapped in a meeting that never seems to end. You can hear your computer calling to you, “Pick me up, you’re falling behind!” So much to do and so little time to get it done, many employees believe that their ability to multitask is critical to achieving success. In my experience, multitasking ensures that you are always so busy you never truly complete anything. However, countless others feel that they must check their email, text messages, favorite social media, and edit a PowerPoint deck all while participating in a meeting or they are not operating at their full potential. This may work in an audio conference (cut to, “I’m sorry can you repeat the question you were breaking up”). But what if participants could see you? In the new world of advanced videoconferencing, where your every move is up for viewing, what will happen to our ability to multitask and will this affect our decision to use videoconferencing in the first place?

Eye contact is a vital non-verbal cue available to those using videoconferencing for virtual communication. While consistent eye contact can show participation and agreement, poor eye contact conveys disinterest and low participation (Bekkering & Shim, 2006). The simple act of reading your email while another meeting member is speaking sends the signal that what the speaker has to say is not important. Verhulsdonck (2007) studied the effects multitasking had on videoconferencing participants and found that the act of multitasking decreased trust levels, increased perceived distance, and lowered the overall experience. Bottom line, people don’t like it when they feel they are being ignored.

All of this is not lost on those of us who love to multitask. In my own research many subjects indicated concern that if they performed other tasks while on video they would violate social protocols and give the wrong impression to others in the meeting. This led to a pivotal decision: if they were not going to be an active participant in the meeting and needed to multitask, they would avoid the use of videoconferencing. Personal videoconferencing systems (e.g. USB based or built-in into the desktop) were among the most avoided forms of video in these cases. Participants specifically chose to keep their video off and take part only via their audio device. If video was mandatory, then participants indicated that they would rather avoid the meeting rather than turn on videoconferencing. In a sense, it was better to not be at the meeting altogether rather than risk being seen as inattentive.

So what does this tell us about meetings, multitasking, and videoconferencing? I believe the first phenomenon that emerges is that the only reason many of us are attending so many meetings in the first place is because we assume that we don’t have to completely pay attention! We assume we can do our other work, still be noted as a participant, and perhaps hear something worthwhile. But bringing video into this equation changes the game. Video screams to the participants, “we will know if you aren’t paying attention!” For those interviewed in my research, there needed to be a compelling reason to give up their freedom to multitask and turn on video. Management professionals looking to bring employees into the modern era of videoconferencing communication need to account for this phenomenon when scoping out an implementation plan for pervasive videoconferencing. If not, managers may be left wondering why so many employees suddenly start developing technical difficulties just before meeting time.


Bekkering, E., & Shim, J. P. (2006). i2i Trust in videoconferencing. Communications of the ACM,
(7), 103-107.

Verhulsdonck, G. (2007). Issues of designing gestures into online interactions: Implications for communicating in virtual environments. In Proceedings of the 25th annual ACM international conference on Design of communication (pp. 26-33). New York: ACM.

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