Virtual communication part 1: from cringeworthy to competent
The following article, the first in a series, was written by Full Cadence Consulting’s Natalie Bradshaw, who teaches professionals to improve communication and amplify their message by using brain science.
Meet two of my clients (whose names have been changed):
- Matt runs a successful engineering firm. During the pandemic, he implemented remote working procedures for most of his staff and was able to keep his business numbers up throughout 2020. However, he’s concerned about the “new normal.”
Internally, many of his employees feel isolated and struggle to stay engaged. But others say they prefer working remotely and have been resistant to returning to the office. Externally, Matt has noted a decline in sales networking opportunities over remote communication platforms. He’s concerned about how this will impact his future business, especially in the context of an economic slowdown.
- Alison manages complex design-build projects. She prides herself in her ability to work long hours and deliver high-quality work. Alison logged into her most recent coaching session with me after a long day that included seven hours of video conferencing. She reported that her eyes hurt, her brain was in a fog, and she felt like she was about to “snap.” She found this particularly frustrating because it felt like she hadn’t “done anything” all day; she’d just been “stuck in meetings.”
Cognitive fatigue is a well-documented side effect of the challenges we’ve faced the past year. While technological adaptation has been a game-changer for businesses, it’s also exacerbating our collective cognitive burnout. Why? Because it increases stress and a stressed listener isn’t listening.
The key to successfully navigating our new normal is understanding the virtual communication factors that contribute to mental fatigue.
Fatigue factor 1: signal processing and miscommunication
In-person communication is easier for our brains because we naturally get a complete signal. In contrast, remote communication must be compressed for successful transmission. Inevitably, some of the signal is lost during this process.
Picture a strobe light at a dance party. Flashes of light show people dancing in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect reality. In virtual signal compression, the bit rate and sampling processes that are used to compress the signal determine which information is transmitted and which is discarded. Extra linguistic cues such as acoustic indicators, overtones, and subtle body language don’t always make the cut.
While everyone’s experienced the frustration of the glitchy video that accompanies a bad Wi-Fi connection, most of us forget that even perfect transmission is inherently incomplete. We just don’t notice because our brains subconsciously fill in the gaps like a flip book. It’s an amazing feat, but we’re not designed to do it all day every day. The result is fatigue that combines with signal distortions to open the door for miscommunication and employee disengagement.
Fatigue factor 2: code-switching and awkwardness
You probably speak to your company’s board members differently than you speak to a toddler without giving it a second thought. That’s called “code-switching.” It’s an evolutionary advantage we’ve developed that facilitates our connection with others. But technology is new in terms of evolution and we haven’t had time to adapt to it.
For example, we usually associate our family rooms with relaxation, informality, and comfy clothes. In contrast, we associate work with more formal dress and behavior. This is why it can be stressful when your boss appears on a screen in your family room. Your brain is forced to walk a tightrope between competing social and linguistic codes. It’s what makes online networking stilted and socially uncomfortable.
Fatigue factor 3: distractions and irritability
Everyone knows distractions are bad, but few people recognize the extent. Specifically, a recent study from the University of California Irvine revealed that it takes adults an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after an interruption. Thank you, technology. But the negative impacts don’t stop there. Data also suggest that people compensate for inevitable interruptions by working faster. That may sound great initially, but it means there’s a trade-off. The increased work speed causes employees to experience more stress, higher frustration levels, and a greater sense of effort and time pressure. In other words, the productivity loss caused by our beloved devices is compounded by psychological factors, resulting in real-world revenue loss and burnout.