Workers are underestimating the power of in-person communication

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Ian Shine, Sub-Editor, Formative Content

  • Many people believe video chats or phone calls are almost as effective for getting what they want as asking in-person, research has shown.
  • But the study found that eight out of 10 face-to-face requests for help are successful, compared with only 57% for video calls and 44% for audio.
  • However, in-person meetings are not always the best option.
  • Workers need to better understand the merits of different communication channels given the rise of remote working.

How will you communicate today? By Zoom, Slack, Teams, phone call, e-mail or WhatsApp?

Did the old-fashioned in-person chat feature on your list? If not, it should have, as research from New York’s Cornell University shows that anyone wanting a “yes” to a request is more likely to get it when asking face-to-face.

But the actual surprise of these findings is how much people overestimate the effectiveness of digital forms of communication when seeking help.

“When we are asking for something, we think what matters is what we are asking for, rather than how we are asking for it,” says Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School and co-author of the study, Should I Ask Over Zoom, Phone or In-Person?.

This misunderstanding is something workers need to put right. Recognizing the pros and cons of email, voice calls and video chats is becoming increasingly important now that more of us are working remotely for most of the week.

And the Great Resignation – or the Great Reshuffle, as some are calling it – means the situation is unlikely to change. Almost all of the 2,300 remote workers surveyed for the 2021 State of Remote Work report by software company Buffer said they want to continue working from home at least some of the time.

Remote requests are less effective

In the Cornell experiment, 144 people used different communication channels to ask a friend to proofread a half-page passage for them. The requests were made either face-to-face, by video call, audio call, video message or audio message.

Participants were asked to predict if their friend would agree to help and then log their expectations against the actual result. Overall, people didn’t think the means of communication would have much effect on the success of their request, but the impact was significant.

Around 85% expected their video calls and video messages to get them what they wanted, yet only 57% actually did for video calls, and just four in 10 for video messages.

A screenshot of a virtual zoom meeting.
Fewer than six in 10 requests for help via video call were successful, compared with eight out of 10 when made face to face. Image: Wikimedia

Expectations and success rates were lower for audio calls and messages, but there was less of a gap between the two. When approaching by audio call, around seven in 10 thought their friend would help, while only 44% agreed to do so. And though three-quarters of participants were hopeful of help after sending audio messages, only 49% were successful.

Face-to-face was the clear winner, with around eight in 10 requests getting a “yes” in response – not far below the expectation that about 90% would lend a hand. That means in-person requests were about 40% more successful than those made by video call.

“These findings suggest that people fail to fully appreciate the value of asking for help in-person,” the report’s authors say. “Richer media channels do still offer an advantage over text-based channels. Yet help-seekers appear largely unaware of this.

“It is people’s beliefs about which communication channel is likely to be most effective – not the actual effectiveness of these communication channels – that drives behaviour.”

When is in-person pointless?

Face-to-face meetings are not always the most appropriate option, of course. Bugging people with requests to talk in-person or via Zoom when an instant message or email will do is only going to annoy them, and potentially make them less likely to help in future.

Technology has largely made status update meetings redundant, according to Erin Baker, a psychologist, leadership coach and former corporate leader for brands such as Facebook. “A round-robin of what people are working on can be handled over email or a collaboration tool,” she says.

Similarly, “information broadcast meetings” are not the best use of people’s time, according to project management software company Atlassian. “Write it as a page on your company intranet so people have the opportunity to comment and ask questions. That kind of engagement promotes a culture of actually reading what your co-workers share with you.”

Complexity should be a guiding principle when deciding whether a meeting is needed, according to Julian Birkinshaw, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School.

Brainstorming, training or planning multi-faceted projects need a visual element, be that via video chat or in person, he says – a suggestion backed up by the 2021 State of Remote Work report, which listed collaboration as the second-biggest difficulty for home-based employees.

And relationship-based meetings should stay face-to-face, according to the Harvard Business Review: “People should be given difficult feedback face-to-face. Challenging group conversations should also take place in person, where distracting parallel side chats can’t overshadow the central discussion.”

So anyone preparing for a tricky conversation about wanting to work remotely more often or having more flexible hours should perhaps consider holding fire on that email, or postponing that Zoom call and saving it for the next time they are in the office.

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