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Why Video Conferencing Goes Against our Survival Instincts and How to Overcome it

Learning & Development, Team Building, Workplace Productivity, Workplace Wellbeing, Remote Working

Although it couldn’t be more important in the current climate, many people struggle to embrace video conferencing. Here’s why – and what you can do to learn to embrace it.

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”
– Confucius

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, couldn’t even have imagined a world with video conferencing in it. Yet it’s easy to imagine his powerful proverb being used to describe the virtues of Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams today.

Nevertheless, even digital natives can feel uncomfortable about turning on the camera. This feeling has nothing to do with technological aptitude, and everything to do with our deeply ingrained instincts for human survival.

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A psychological aversion to video conferencing

How can turning on a camera become a battle against our instincts for human survival? It’s all about familiarity – which is deeply rooted in the neuro-processes of humans.

“I don’t like seeing myself on camera.” This is a remark most of us have either said or heard. But why? Every sighted person around us is exposed to our faces. Yet we rarely look at our own faces, and we don’t see ourselves in the same way that others do. Mirrors provide a mirror image, but this isn’t a reflection of our true face. Although the differences may seem minor to others, to us they are monumental.

This brings us quite literally face-to-face with the Familiarity Principle. Essentially, this psychological principle says that we much prefer people and products we are more familiar with, while anything else could be a threat. This is why everyone else looks fine on camera, while our impression of ourselves feels strange.

Apply this to video conferencing, and our brain isn’t set up to readily accept the benefits.

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Why video conferencing is actually good for our brains

The business benefits of making the switch to camera are evident, particularly in terms of learning and productivity. In a 2017 study of 300 executives, Forbes Insights found that more than 60% agreed video conferencing significantly improves the quality of communication compared to audio conferencing. This figure rose to 73% among high-growth businesses.

Although seeing ourselves on camera can go against our initial instincts, video conferencing actually ends up appealing to other aspects of human nature. In particular, visual cues enable us to move through the relationship and trust-building stages of interaction much more efficiently. Getting to know others more quickly translates into getting more done – and productivity is something that makes us feel good too.

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How to overcome video conferencing fears

Anyone facilitating video conferences should be aware of potential participant aversions to switching on the camera. Thinking about this in the design of an agenda can help put participants at ease.

One approach is for the facilitator to quickly focus the conversation on what everyone brings to the table and why this particular group of people is the team to solve the issue at hand. This brings about a feeling of personal worth and can be a welcome distraction from individuals’ faces.

Rapid ‘getting to know you’ icebreakers to kick-start meetings can be very effective too. For example, ask everyone to send in a photo of something they enjoy. The host can compile and share the images during the meeting for others to guess who enjoys what. This turns the attention of our colleagues to something that makes us feel comfortable.

These tactics don’t have to take long, but can make a big difference when you get down to business. In Creating Productive Remote Team Meetings, we wrote about the need to use colleagues as actors in a task and not just terminals of information. Pre-work is also vital to ensuring productivity and decision-making in a virtual environment. When we treat people as active rather than passive passengers, they will focus more on the task at hand than the camera.

Tackling video conferencing in this way makes it a positive experience for all – and our brains will start to accept it. Don’t be tempted to turn off your camera when all other participants have theirs running. Also be wary of leaving your camera running whilst minimising your view of yourself. Showing your face demonstrates you are fully engaged in the video conference, and ultimately helps your brain adjust to the new way of working.

informal working

After all, video conferencing is set to become the new life skill of 2020. We’re sure Confucius would be proud of us!