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Online communication: bane or boon?

Most of us are spending more time looking at computer screens. It’s just one of the effects that the coronavirus is having on our everyday lives. Video calling has become a popular way of keeping in touch for professionals but it’s not without its problems. The two most frequently heard complaints are a general sense of fatigue and a lack of non-verbal cues. I will discuss both problems later in the article.

Apart from sharing their quibbles, my course participants also exchange tips to combat fatigue, such as beginning the day with a walk and ending it the same way, much as if they were walking to and from work. Another good tip is to shorten each meeting by about 15 minutes to allow for a stretch in between sessions. A personal favourite of mine is to invest in a pair of computer glasses. The bifocals that normally grace my nose turned out to be unsuitable for the screen which is positioned exactly and unhelpfully between the distances covered by them.

The creativity shown by many people during this pandemic is quite astounding. Sometimes, however, the basics seem to be forgotten so here is a list of the most obvious ways to make communicating online less of a chore.

  1. Internet connection
    A good internet connection is vital for online meetings. If you don’t have a good connection a phone call is much the better option. Nothing is more stressful and tiring than having to pick up the thread of the conversation every couple of minutes. It’s like trying to drive a car that keeps stalling. Find out if a wi fi booster will remedy the problem, or better still, go for a direct cable connection. A quick search will turn up online speed tests which you can use to measure your internet speed. You could also consider changing your current provider for one that offers a faster connection.

  2. Sound
    Bad sound quality is another assault on your energy. Some participants will bring forth a creaky, echoey or barely audible sound, usually because they are using an old laptop. People who are using a headset do much better. Headsets have the added advantage of filtering out ambient sound. If the use of a headset bothers you, a separate microphone may offer a solution. Unfortunately, it will amplify ambient noise but there are programmes you can download which will prevent this. Your ears will thank you for not having to filter out distracting noises and a near normal audio quality.

  3. Image
    It is very difficult to pick up on non-verbal cues if the quality of the image is insufficient. Your eyes have to work even harder to read the information.





    This image shows the optimum online meeting setup: position, lighting and background are aimed at getting the best out of online communication. In short, image, connection and sound quality are crucial for successful online communication. If you find any of the meeting participants lacking in any of these respects, discuss the matter or send them this article. It will help keep video calling fatigue at bay.

So how about those non-verbal cues?

Many people have said they are missing out on nonverbal cues online. It prompted me and my colleagues to conduct some experiments during our sessions, to see if it would also happen if the participants complied with the above conditions. We instructed an actor to display certain nonverbal reactions while answering the question: ‘Would you be willing to take responsibility for this task?’ The tasks in question varied from organising a staff outing, to giving a presentation. The participants observed the actor and used the chat function to reflect on what they saw. The result was surprisingly positive. The participants were able to pick up on the nonverbal cues very well. Of course, the nervous foot tapping happened off screen and out of sight, as it would in a real-life meeting room. We didn’t think the perception level was significantly lower than during live training sessions. And yet our participants said something was lacking and that something had to do with the ‘feeling’.

Some participants indicated they were bothered by the fact that they couldn’t be in one room with their fellow participants and were missing out on the energy they derived from their presence. Kinaesthetically inclined people, who use their intuition in contact with others, were particularly affected while others quite enjoyed not having to deal with the presence of colleagues. One professor told me that she relished the absence of the hostile atmosphere she would have to endure during a normal departmental meeting. Some people feel they can speak out more because the screen creates a certain unaccustomed distance. Personal preferences play an important role in online communication.

Conclusion

Video calling is much less tiring with good quality imaging, a good internet connection and proper sound quality. Self-evident as it may seem, this is often forgotten. By alerting the participants in the meeting to failures in these areas, you will limit stress and fatigue. Once the basics are covered you will be better able to pick up on nonverbal cues. Sensing other people’s energy will be harder. For some this is a boon while others feel it as a loss. 

Whatever your personal preference is, video calling will be with us for a long time to come. But the fact that it is not perfect does not mean that our ability to communicate is compromised.




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