We're years into the pandemic-driven explosion in remote work and, while most of us have gotten used to having many more remote meetings, they still seem a little awkward.
There's the uncertainty about where to look, the hesitant wave goodbye at the end, the fiddling around with settings at the beginning, the unpleasantness of constantly watching yourself, and that one colleague who has really odd taste in backgrounds.
All of which creates a subjective feeling for many that spending time on Zoom -- while possibly still preferable to a daily commute -- can be exhausting and somehow unsatisfying. Are we all just still getting used to meeting by video? Is it just a quirk of the tech? Or is something more fundamental going on within our brains that makes Zoom feel so awkward?
Scientists out of Yale University recently tried to find out, and what they discovered may make you recalibrate how you use use video conferencing tools like Zoom in your own life.
This is your brain on Zoom
Plenty of surveys have already confirmed that, if you find Zoom tiring and weird, you are not alone. These scientists took another tack. They didn't ask people what they thought of remote meeting tools; they actually examined the brain's response to using them.
The team rounded up 28 healthy volunteers and strapped them into functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), electroencephalography (EEG), and eye-tracking technology to gauge the brain's response to both Zoom calls and in-person meetings.
The hypothetical company involved and the conversation taking place stayed the same across the meetings. The only thing that varied was the format -- live or video -- and that, the scientists discovered, mattered a great deal. Even though subjects were talking to the same person about the same exact things, how they had that conversation had big effects on their brains.
You can read this whole Science Alert article if you're interested in the exact anatomical findings (face-to-face meetings produce more activation of the dorsal-parietal region of the brain, more of a specific type of brain wave called theta oscillations, and more pupil dilation). But for those of us not trained in neuroscience, here's the takeaway: your brain just really struggles to engage and connect over video.
When talking over Zoom, our brains are less in sync, suggesting we're worse at reading social cues and feeling connected to our conversational partners over video. The scientists are blunt in their overall takeaway from the findings: "Zoom appears to be an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions."
I told you so
Maybe one day, when tech improves and eye-contact issues are less pronounced, this will change, but in the meantime, the brutal truth appears to be that it's near impossible to feel as connected to someone over video as you would in person.
This won't be the hugest shock in the world to many of you. It certainly won't be to the Microsoft researchers (and Netflix's CEO) who have publically worried that remote work is lousy for work that demands human connection and subtle communication, like brainstorming. Trust and collaboration are key to team innovation. If you just can't get on the other person's wavelength over Zoom, then it's not a huge surprise that you won't get into that magic groove that produces the best ideas.
It also might not surprise lonely Gen-Zers, who the media reports are more likely to want to return to the office for a bit of human connection. This Yale research confirms relationship-building over Zoom is just inherently hard for your brain.
A balanced approach to video calls
So, what's the overall bottom-line from this research for entrepreneurs and other business leaders? Probably not that video calls are always horrendous and that you should force your employees back to the office like it's 2019. As we have covered extensively here on Inc.com, an absolutist approach to return-to-office debates has pretty serious downsides (such as making your employees hate you). There is still no reason you can't give your boss a routine status update over Teams.
But remote work proponents are wrong if they take an absolute approach too. Humans have evolved for millions of years to look each other in the eye and read subtle body language cues. This study is pretty clear: Your brain just can't replicate the connection that creates over Zoom.
The final takeaway is probably just a scientific underline to a common sense conclusion: Anything that really needs a human touch should really only be done face to face.
Photo Credit: Getty Images.