Show Your Face: The complex psychology of video chat

With high-quality video chat available to everyone with a mobile phone we find ourselves in a spectacular time for remote communication, one that ten years ago would seem like science fiction. Five people can chat, looking at each other’s faces, in real time from thousands of miles away – for free. Skype, Hangouts, Zoom, Facetime, and even the Android built-in phone interface all provide free good-enough solutions and paid high-quality solutions for video presence.

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It would seem that with the rise of remote work this technology would allow direct transfer of traditional meetings to video meetings. But it isn’t this simple. Video chat has not replaced in-person chat because it works just differently enough to cause different emotional reactions. As with all change, and all new technology, their adoption faces psychological barriers.

Friction with Video

The most common objections are simple: video cameras are hard to setup, and the quality is not always as magical as you might imagine. Because the video and audio quality rely on your Internet connection, quality can dramatically alter during a conference call, making it hard to adjust to slight delays, frozen screens, and garbled words. Because video calls are good enough we feel these errors acutely, making us uncomfortable and frustrated. Many people simply prefer talking on the phone where we are all aware of the protocols in place; the slight differences in rhythms throw us off over video.


Another objection is that video usage is “unprofessional.” Digging a little deeper into what this means, this appears to be a cover for other complex issues.

Many workers use video calling in their personal lives or were first exposed to it in a social context. They have a strong association with casual chatting with friends or having their kids talk to their grandparents. This first impression is hard to shake – just ask Google Apps which has faced a similar problem: many people used addresses for personal use and therefore using it for business feels too casual.

We are just now at the point where software that allowed for video sharing appears professional. The old guard of conference calls tools, such as GoToMeeting, feel professional but have not kept up with the quality of more casual tools like Hangouts and Facetime. The third generation of tools, such as Zoom and JoinMe, offer professional features like shared whiteboards, audio recording, and proper mute functionality. These tools are easier to use as they feel like “work tools.”

Unprofessional is also a code word for something else: the appearance of professionalism. Staring at your face during an entire meeting is not fun and feels casual. There is a reason a typical office conference room doesn’t have mirrors on the walls. Besides, the default angle of an open laptop makes most people look like they are looking at a fun house mirror.

And for many distributed teams it is easier to imagine the other parties on the call in suits if you can’t see that they aren’t. We would rather have the feeling of strict professionalism than seeing that we are all working, but wearing t-shirts.

Privacy and Power

When you work from home, the power dynamic between you and your employer shifts in your direction. Instead of them making you wear certain clothes, drive to an office of their choosing, and be present based on their schedule, you now are responsible for your work and your work environment only. Because of this remote workers feel a freedom and empowerment with their working schedule that can block being open to a video chat throughout the day.

If I’m in charge of my schedule, then I can spend the early morning at Starbucks just thinking with a notebook, but if you make me dial into a video call, you are removing some of this creative freedom. Likewise, I can no longer go to the gym during lunch if an early afternoon video call won’t allow me time to get back in time and take a shower. These seem like small issues, but the requirement of *being presentable* shifts the power dynamic back to appearances and away from raw work output. Some remote workers, sensitive as we are to this relationship (after all, this is why we are working this way), don’t think it is worth the benefits.

We must also remember that people who work from home are in a different privacy landscape that those in an office. I might work best with a messy office or in an ugly sweatshirt, and maybe I don’t want to share that I’m currently in my car picking up my kids from school. Perhaps my home office is off to the side of an open floor plan, and simply having a camera in my home feels like an invasion of privacy.

Wrapping Up

If video chat has so many downsides then why are there so many companies working to improve it, and why does every modern device come with a high-quality webcam built-in? Because despite these downsides video chat is still the best way to get to know someone remotely, to feel connected to someone from afar, and to build rapport between coworkers. In the next post we will list some of the other benefits of video chat for remote work, and how to overcome some of the downsides we detailed here.