The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of remote technologies such as videoconferencing as more middle market company employees work from home (WFH). That WFH trend will surely continue, as will the accelerated adoption of virtual communication tools for getting work done when so many of us now work remotely.

While virtual communication has come a long way, it still can’t replace the powerful impact of in-person communication. NCMM spoke with author and virtual communications guru Dr. Nick Morgan, who literally wrote the book on virtual communications, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, who shared actionable insights for middle market companies.

The 3-Level Hierarchy of Virtual Communication

Video conferencing sits at the top of a three-level hierarchy of ways to communicate virtually, according to Morgan. At the bottom is text-based communication, such as email or even Slack: “it’s the most common and the most likely to create misunderstandings,” he says. Second level is audio conferencing and phone calls. They’re better than text because participants can at least ask follow-up questions in real-time to gain clarity. The problem with such audio-based communication is the way engineers have compressed the human voice, which happened when phone technology was initially invented.

“The human voice is an extraordinary thing,” says Morgan. “We don't consciously hear most of the voice’s range, but our unconscious mind hears it and it transmits so much human emotion and intent, which gets lost in compression.” That vocal, emotional resonance gets muted in a phone call or audio conference, which creates multiple problems. “What we humans care about more than anything else when we're communicating is how the other person feels about us. The data they share isn't as important as their attitude towards us, which can be muted by voice compression.”


Virtual Communication Can Mute the 5 Senses

All human beings look to decode other people’s intent through the five senses: sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste. We primarily look to other people's faces to decode what they're intending, which is why face-to-face communication remains so powerful. With an email, we get none of that key information. The challenge is that “when we don't get sensory information, we assume the worst,” explains Morgan. “It’s a survival technique that we humans have evolved. And it makes sense. If you're walking through the jungle and you see a shadow, it's highly adaptable to assume it’s a tiger. When we aren’t able to collect enough sensory information, we tend to assume the worst and that negativity bias can be a big weakness of virtual communication.”


Common Mistakes with Video Conferencing

Human beings have a sixth sense which involves the determination of where they are in physical space and where the people around them are in space. It's called “proprioception,” and it keeps people from bumping into things and keeps them safe. 

During a video conference, says Morgan, “your proprioception sense is confused because you're sitting about two to three feet away from the screen, and so you think the other person is two to three feet away, but their size is much smaller. So your proprioception sense can't figure that out, and it goes into panic mode. You get this stress response.” This explains why newcomers to video conferencing often become stressed out and tired. 

To mitigate this problem, suggests Morgan, keep the video conferences shorter and take breaks in-between. “People need a couple of minutes for their proprioception sense to calm down. But what people are doing now is video conferencing for two hours. People are so exhausted by the end and don't know why.”

Ways to Build Stronger Relationships Via Video Conference

Begin by making it clear to participants what your intent is, and be explicit (verbally) about your feelings. “Remember that what the camera shows is two dimensional,” explains Morgan. “The sound quality is compressed, so your emotions are not coming through as clearly as you think. You’ll need to work harder to articulate how you're feeling. You need to put the emotions back in with your words, emotions the virtual communication tools are taking out.”

Morgan strongly suggests asking the following question: “How did what I just said make you feel?” If you do that, he says, you’ll see a few important results: ”One, you show people respect and give them the space to tell you how they feel. Second, it shows vulnerability on your part and a willingness to listen. And lastly, you might actually find out how they feel, and that's a very good thing.”

The Benefit of Getting Video Conferencing Right

Morgan wants you to invert the three-level hierarchy of virtual communication. Instead of doing most of your communication through text, second most through audio and third most through video, which is what most business people do (according to research), “you'll invert that and do most of your communication through video because that’s the best, second audio, and third by text based communications,” says Morgan.

And as a result, you'll communicate with more impact and more clarity than if you have the hierarchy the way most people now do. Don’t forget: even if someone misunderstands your intent on an audio or video call, they can ask you a question in real-time to gain clarity, and vice versa.

What Middle Market Companies Can Do

For middle market companies, the opportunities are large should they get video conferencing right. Best practices include keeping video conferences shorter and setting a clear agenda. Morgan also recommends that if you've got more than a few people on the call, “have an emcee who keeps track of participation. That's certainly not happening now: people get thrown in at the deep end and it’s sink or swim.”

Finally, the most important practice Morgan stresses is getting the “human intent” issues right. Leaders and video conference participants must “try to fight that automatic tendency to  assume we've understood the other person correctly. Instead, always be aware that you may have misunderstood and don't immediately assume the negative.” 

It takes humility and calm: “you can save yourself a lot of grief if you don't get angry,” says Morgan. “Be open to the idea that maybe you misheard something and maybe the other person didn't express themselves well. We all need to be a little more patient with each other at this time when we're all grappling with virtual communication all the time.”