What’s Lost When Teams Communicate Only By Video Conference?

Dave Morgan
Dave Morgan  |  Chief Executive Officer
Updated: Sep. 24, 2021
Published: Sep. 01, 2021

I wonder whether companies in industries that rely heavily on human creativity, client engagement and teamwork can truly achieve their full potential with “fully remote” workforces, which is why I personally favor hybrid work environments with significant in-person elements.

One of the biggest reasons why is my concern over how much was lost in team communications when virtually all collaboration occurred electronically.

For sure, this pandemic has proven to us that teams can accomplish extraordinary things working remotely, heavily supported by the amazing innovations over the past decade in work tools like messaging, cloud-based document creation and sharing -- and, most importantly, real-time video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.

That said, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the statement that there are some real gaps in the quality of communication and understanding between electronic and face-to-face meetings.

Just over a month ago, I was fortunate enough to have industry legend Tom Deierlein address our senior management retreat on leadership. Tom is the founder and CEO of ThunderCat, the founder of the TD Foundation, and probably the best leader of any type that I have ever worked with. While much of Tom’s talk focused on accountability, team building and what it means to be a leader, he also talked to us about the “7-38-55 rule,” and why leaders today have to work even harder teaching and practicing communication skills in an era when so much of our work and collaboration is happening electronically.

The 7-38-55 rule, developed decades ago by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and popularized in his 1971 book Silent Messages, attempts to quantify the importance of nonverbal communication. The rule states that only 7% of meaning is delivered through spoken words, with 38% derived from the speaker’s tone of voice and 55% from the speaker’s body language.

Yup. Your words matter, but not nearly as much as you think.

So when those conversations are happening on video frames on computer screens, you may get the words right, but how much of your tone of voice and body language is lost? Probably a lot.

What’s the answer? I don’t think that this means all meetings need to be in person. They never will be, nor should they. Even the vast majority of meetings in the future are almost certain to have remote participants.

For sure, technology will get better and let us observe and feel more.

Ultimately, we will all need to go into video conferences and calls with the understanding that parts of our communication are going to be lost -- and that we should find ways to remedy the loss, whether seeking more clarity, asking more questions, practicing better listening skills, preparing better, or following up more diligently. And, most importantly, entering our conversations with more empathy for others.

We all need to remember that communication is not about me, it is about you and us.

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An earlier version of this blog was originally published by MediaPost.