In the Age of Zoom, Why a Phone Call May Be a Better Option

The demands of being online can translate into drops in our performance, research shows. Picking up the phone sometimes might be a better choice.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

zoom fatigue

Videoconferencing and one-on-one video chats have their upsides, but they don’t have to be the only way you communicate. Old-school phone calls can do the trick.

A few days ago, when I was making arrangements to talk with Terisa Whitted, a Bay Area–based television producer and consultant on the production of Socio’s Event Hack Hybrid Games, Whitted surprised me. Instead of exchanging a Zoom link, Whitted, a long-time producer of reality television shows including HGTV and a California-grown version of “Shark Tank,” asked for my phone number.

I had assumed that Whitted, who is comfortable around cameras in a way that few non-television professionals are, would prefer to talk screen-to-screen. But Whitted also is aware of what it takes to appear on screen — she called it “TV anchor energy” — and that it isn’t always helpful to ask yourself and others to draw upon it. “It can be exhausting to be onscreen — looking at yourself and feeling like your posture has to be a certain way — it can distract from the core business,” Whitted said. “Especially in an intro call” — which ours was — “a phone call is a way to relax and be yourself, without having to focus on your appearance or the screen.”

On platforms like Zoom, “we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at INSEAD, told the BBC earlier this year. “Paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.”

The drop in our performance isn’t imaginary: An analysis of video interviews compared with in-person interviews conducted by scholars at George Washington University revealed that people tended to be evaluated less favorably when they appeared via video compared with in person. Another study showed that participants made fewer mistakes on phone calls, compared with text-only and video communications.

Zoom calls create cognitive dissonance, Petriglieri told the BBC. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally.”

There are obvious upsides to videoconferencing and one-on-one video chats — participants can share their screens and work collaboratively. And sometimes it’s nice to see a human face or put a face to a name, even if it is a disembodied, cognitively dissonant one.

But remember — video doesn’t have to become your default method of communication. And stay tuned for what I learned from Whitted about applying television production skills to digital events. Our phone call lasted for more than an hour.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.