The Trouble with Zoom
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The Trouble with Zoom

Video isn't a good replacement for in-person communication, and it makes many workers anxious.
ymphotos / Shutterstock.com

In April 2020, many office workers trapped at home were summoned to “virtual happy hours,” complete with mindless games concocted by their employers.

No matter if one rarely attended actual happy hours before the pandemic; there was no viable excuse for turning off the screen if the boss said, “Time for some Zoom fun!”

These fake house parties with no cars in the driveway quickly faded.

But the practice of meeting all day in back-to-back Zoom calls with colleagues, clients, vendors, and managers is still with us two and a half years later. It was assumed that regular users would naturally sharpen their video communication skills and refine their home office backdrops, rendering work location a choice once the pandemic receded. As long as you’re in front of a screen, the reasoning went, we can all communicate just fine. 

Except that people grew resentful. According to a recent New York Times article, citing a March 2022 survey of office workers, 40 percent of respondents said they didn’t like seeing themselves on camera, and more than a third didn’t like the pressure of being on camera.

Plus, “mirroring” the facial expressions of people you’re talking to—a building block of good communication—is hard to do on Zoom, what with frozen video, blurred images, and yes, the dog barking.  

Yet hybrid or fully remote workers are loath to complain because they like to, or must, work from home. That vague feeling of isolation or very real physical exhaustion from screen meetings has a much greater cost than Zoom fatigue, however.

What’s missing for the many who facilitate meetings, hold brainstorming sessions, and deliver training is the opportunity for nonverbal communication. Zoom did away with that, and the workplace is suffering.

In his 2010 best-seller, Winning Body Language, author Mark Bowden makes a compelling case about business body language—how to use it and how to read it. He cites the three long-accepted components of any face-to-face human communication: words, tone of voice, and body language.

The latter two comprise the nonverbal elements of communication and are key because they “form the receiver’s understanding of the feelings, attitude, and intent behind a communication.”

Research shows that body language accounts for 55% of that understanding, tone of voice 38%, and the verbal content—the words—a mere 7%.

In other words, what we want our audience to know depends almost entirely on the 93% of communication that is nonverbal, not on what we say.

“What’s missing for the many who facilitate meetings, hold brainstorming sessions, and deliver training is the opportunity for nonverbal communication. Zoom did away with that, and the workplace is suffering.”

Early studies of body language in the 1950s and ’60s were peppered with clues about when people might feel threatened, such as crossing their legs in a particular fashion, or skeptical, because they are crossing their arms.

Such rudimentary insights have mushroomed into a huge and sophisticated industry—before the pandemic, that is. But deciphering what a speaker intends to say, or “wants the audience to know” is crucial—and not easy if you consider how opaque and lazy screen communication is. Nonverbal cues are essential for a listener to absorb the message, not just the words. 

The astounding gap between prepandemic and current communication is perhaps no more evident than reading Bowden’s long section on the art of the handshake.

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Unlike the substitute elbow bump, a traditional handshake (should the practice ever return) is the “perfect way to understand the possible intention of another human through the tension, rhythm, direction, resistance, heat and moisture in the hand.”

As celebrated novelist and theologian Carl Frederick Buechner warned, “they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Remember that when we finally start shaking hands again.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).

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