You can stop mandating everyone to have their video on when in Zoom. As a communications coach and professional facilitator for what seems like forever, I often find myself being asked about best practices to get full engagement. I find myself challenged about what it means to have quality communication when all of the normal venues where effective communication take place have been largely unavailable in the midst of a global pandemic. In a world where most of us have been relegated to meeting with our friends and colleagues only through a computer screen, we have to think differently about what effective communication means.
Being in a lockdown, and largely isolated from physical engagement with other humans, has taken a toll. Our social lives and our mental health have suffered from not being in the same rooms with other people. In my course, The Essential Guide for Effective Managers I talked about the levels which we can try to go through to be able to effectively connect with people. And face-to-face meetings is the number one, top level communication channel of choice. Close behind that would be a video call. Now granted, I wrote The Essentials course a good two years before the lockdown began but the tenets explored there remain the same.
The beauty of being able to see someone is that we get the full expression of their nonverbal communication. When we have video on at least we can still pick up on facial expressions and some gestures. But, unlike in-person, video limits the physical space we’re able to take up. That’s valuable real estate for communicating authority and power dynamics! (See Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on this if you haven’t yet). But one of the things that in-person has over video is the ability to actually feel the energy of someone else in the room. Something happens when you’re physically next to someone. You can notice when someone shifts from feeling sad, to angry, to despondent. A lot of that energy, that feeling that you have when sharing space with someone, is completely lost on video. That energetic connection cannot be replaced, no matter how many upgrades MS Teams makes.
Video is Always #2
And so while we all would love to have a video on, it’s still not going to be the same as being in the same room with someone or with a group of someones. The benefits of video over an audio-only communication is that you can still glean a bit from facial expressions. And you can mimic some of the energy of physical space using tricks like getting closer to the camera. Or looking through the lens to simulate eye contact, even shifting your own presence by using a standing desk. (More of these strategies can be explored in my Executive Presence workshop). And it’s because of these benefits that many of us have been advocating for having video on whenever possible.
So what’s the case for not mandating to have video on? See point 1: you cannot detect any of that emotional energy that someone is experiencing with video, so at best your emotional intelligence capability is going to be at half full.
EQ or emotional intelligence is one’s ability to perceive and accurately understand the emotions of one’s self and of others, and to appropriately manage one’s own emotions in the moment. Managers were already having a hard time with this with in-person interactions. Not only are managers asked to support their reports with functional expertise in their content area, but high EQ, long described as a “soft skill” is one of the key characteristics of the best leaders and managers. Turns out no one wants to work with a tone deaf robot. You know what exacerbates tone deaf robot syndrome? You guessed it, less human interaction.
EQ or emotional intelligence is one’s ability to perceive and accurately understand the emotions of one’s self and of others, and to appropriately manage one’s own emotions in the moment.
Without all of the energetic cues that would allow us to detect how someone is doing emotionally on an intuitive level, many managers are left to guessing or even more outlandish, asking their employees how they are feeling. . . .multiple times a day, sometimes in the same conversation. I poke fun here, because of course a great human should be thinking about others’ well being frequently and noticing and acknowledging when something seems out of place. This is the only way we can actually make sure that everyone is not only feeling good and safe about their work and their role in it, but also able to function at their best by receiving the supports that they need moment to moment.
Why video on isn’t enough for EQ
But that takes me back to the video calls. We already know that video cannot replace energetic connection that is present in person. We also know that depression and anxiety are up as a result of the global pandemic, social unrest, and life in general. So if 1) everyone is dealing with and processing more emotions than normal and 2) video is not going to give us data for EQ to be optimal, what is the point of mandating video? Instead of mandating video, leaders may have to double down on actually caring about their employees instead. If the goal in these interactions is to make sure that people are supported the best way possible, we can do that by 1) asking them how they are doing 2) genuinely listening to their response and 3) providing resources to fill the gaps.
What to do Instead
Instead of mandating needing someone to be on video why not ask them to be responsible for their own well-being? I recently came across an article about how mandating video on all of your calls disproportionately negatively impacts marginalized people. I won’t go into all the details of that article as you should read about this phenomenon yourself. But one of the key takeaways here is that you actually don’t know what someone else is going through. Whether physically or emotionally at any given point in time. That’s what conversation is for.
When we were in-person you could at least react when someone needed a moment’s rest. Or when they were maybe about to tear up, or needed a pause in the meeting. But now that we’re all locked behind our screens, a lot of that nuance gets missed. And video isn’t catching it – especially with more than 4-5 folks on screen.
Sometimes someone needs to go off camera because they’re in distress. Or someone needs to turn off their video or audio because they’re caring for a loved one. Sometimes someone has turned off both because they haven’t left their office chair in hours. And they need a snack, or a bathroom break. Or to be able to lay down while they listen to the current lecture or you go through your deck. One of the most human things that has happened during the lockdown is we’ve been forced to trust that our colleagues and coworkers are doing work even when we cannot see them. Can we also trust that they’re taking care of what is their highest priority emotionally when we can’t see them?
What we do at High Tides Virtual Workshops
Business as usual is out the door and there’s more time and space to be more human at work (novel). Pump up your EQ points and allow others space to have more emotions, and the choice to share them with you (or not).
What do I tell people in High Tides virtual workshops? Please take responsibility for your own well-being. If you’re able to be on the video, great. If you’re not because you’re taking care of yourself, or others, please do that. I trust you.
And for an in-person workshop? Hey we’re all adults here. If you have to go to the bathroom, get some water, remove yourself for any reason, I trust you.