Why Phone Calls Beat Zoom

Science of Productivity: Why Phone Calls Beat Zoom

February 3, 2021

In the worldwide shift to remote work, many jumped headlong into Zoom (or other videoconference) meetings. The idea, which admittedly, we espoused on this site was that video calls are superior to phone calls because they give participants access to more information – particularly nonverbal communication that makes up a good portion of all communication.

The thinking was simple – more information leads to better comprehension. Well, we jumped too quickly to the seemingly obvious conclusion. We explain why in the video below.

The Science of Productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how to accomplish your goals faster. It is part of the Anything But Idle productivity news podcast.

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Welcome to the Science of Productivity segment. In this segment, I bring you to a new piece of research on how to accomplish your goals faster. During this week’s segments, I want to share shocking research – shocking at least to me – on whether you should have tough and important conversations over video or voice-only: Zoom or phone.

Many, myself included, have made the case for video calls as a substitute for in-person meetings. The simple, yet compelling argument for video calls over phone calls is that much of communication is non-verbal – some argue as much as 80% – and as a result, video must be better because you’re able to receive and make sense of much more information. How could increasing the amount of information we receive in a conversation by up to 5 times not help boost our understanding?

I should have noticed the first cracks in this theory when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers. In it, Gladwell describes the prevalence of what he calls “transparency failure,” our belief that we can read people accurately even though we rarely can. A bail judge in NYC named Solomon is a quintessential example. He believes he needs to look defendants in the eyes before deciding whether to release them on parole or send them back to jail. However, a computer-based model outperformed Solomon and his peers by 25% without any of the information the judges receive during the hearings.

[Interested in other insights from Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers? Read our article: What People Managers Need to Learn from Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers.]

This was a clue. The extra information not only didn’t help but actually led to worse decisions. 5 experiments conducted by Yale researcher Michael Kraus and published in 2017 explain this further. Kraus had study participants communicate with others in 3 primary ways: voice-only, video-only, and voice-video combined. Across all studies, those communicating via voice-only scored significantly better on what psychologists call “empathic accuracy” – the ability to judge the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others.

How can we judge others better when we can’t see them? Kraus offers two potential explanations. First, most people think certain non-verbal cues reliably reveal certain emotions, not realizing that people are quite good at keeping their emotions from showing up in their non-verbal cues. Second, more information weakens our focus. Kraus found that study participants were better able to focus on the “linguistic and paralinguistic vocal cues that accompany speech.”

This doesn’t mean you should get rid of your Zoom account, but before you turn your video on before every conversation, especially difficult ones, pause and think again.

Sources:

Kraus, Michael W. “Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy.” American Psychologist 72.7 (2017): 644.