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A month after starting his new UX researcher job in late May, 40-year-old Jason felt he knew his colleagues pretty well. The New Englander is one of thousands of people across the globe who was forced to start a new job remotely this year due to the pandemic, but “virtual coffee chats” with his co-workers made him feel extremely welcomed.
Jason, who is “terrible with faces”, even says that video calls helped him recognise colleagues more easily as he could look at them for a while without it being awkward or strange. He feels that seeing glimpses of people’s kitchens, bedrooms, even children, gave him a fuller picture of their lives.
But despite all this, there was one unexpected shock when he met three colleagues for the first time in late June. “One of them was shorter than I expected and one of them was slightly taller than I expected,” Jason says. “What I didn’t realise was that I was always looking at people at eye level [on video calls], so my brain interpreted that as, ‘We’re all the same height’.”
As far as surprises about your new colleagues go, this revelation was pretty tame. Jason still feels his first impressions of his colleagues were mostly accurate and as someone who is “actually quite socially awkward” he enjoyed onboarding via video rather than in a traditional way. But Jason isn’t the only person who’s been surprised or shocked by their new colleagues when meeting them in real life after months and months of video calls.
We all make snap judgements when we meet people for the first time. Psychologists have found that we evaluate whether someone is trustworthy in one tenth of a second – a 2018 survey of 2,000 Americans found that 69 per cent formed a first impression of someone before they even spoke. Body language, height, weight, eye contact, and even walking styles are all things we use to judge others, but they’re also things that are rendered fairly invisible on Zoom calls.
As more and more people return to work in communal spaces, new employees are finding themselves making “second first impressions” of their colleagues. Laura, a financial services worker in her 40s from Tyne and Wear, started a new job as a manger during lockdown. “Meeting the people who work for me was tough. They were very subdued on video calls… and conversation was really stilted,” she says. When she finally met her colleagues in person in July, she was surprised that a woman who was very quiet in video calls actually “chats constantly in the office.”
“The thing I’d not fully realised until we went back to the office is how much team management is done by informal communication that isn’t necessarily important enough for an email or a phone call,” Laura says – she thinks her chatty colleague talks more in the office because real life conversations aren’t bound by time or purpose like they are via video. Laura says that now the team no longer work remotely, she’s able to pick up on subtle changes in colleagues’ demeanour or body language to be a better manager.
But video calls don’t just render certain aspects of our personalities invisible, they also make other aspects more visible than ever before. Tasnia is a 22-year-old civil servant from east London who started her job in lockdown and says she couldn’t help judging her new colleagues’ homes during video calls. “I found myself seeing manifestations of salaries in the rooms people were sat in – massive disparities in class,” she says.
Tasnia hasn’t yet met her colleagues in real life and wonders how they also might judge her differently when they meet for the first time. “As a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I sometimes don’t wear it when I’m having calls with female colleagues,” she explains. “This is something I wouldn’t be able to do if I was in the office with men passing by constantly. The privacy was a nice change but I can imagine when I’m in the office my female colleagues will still have that image of me without my hijab in their heads. This isn’t nerve wracking, just odd.”
Meeting colleagues for the “first time” after lockdown certainly is an odd experience for many, but are there long term consequences if your early interactions with someone are via Zoom? Is there anything to worry about when it comes to forming relationships remotely? Linda Kaye is a cyberpsychology lecturer at Edge Hill University who studies how online settings can promote social inclusion. Kaye says compared to other types of online interactions, video calls can give a fuller impression of individuals. “In many ways you have similar impressions than you would have to face-to-face, but you also have additional cues,” she says, referencing the rooms, children, and pets we see on video calls.
What is missing, however, is “joint attention” – in real life, if a speaker turns to look at another person, other people then look at them too. On Zoom, you might end up looking at the left side of your screen to “face” a colleague who is on the right side of someone else’s, leading to confusion. Kaye says joint attention is beneficial when forming relationships so potentially its disappearance could be detrimental. “But arguably this is temporary, the chances are most people will meet their colleagues in other contexts, so if there are detriments, I don’t think it will be a long-lived thing,” she says.
As of yet there aren’t many studies tracking how our interactions differ via video and in real life, but Roser Cañigueral, a postdoctoral research associate at UCL’s Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, published interesting research at the end of August. Cañigueral asked both autistic and neurotypical participants to interact with an individual via a pre-recorded video, then via a video call, then face-to-face. She used an eye-tracker to record participants and also measured their facial movement.
As expected, Cañigueral found participants made fewer facial expressions and less eye contact when watching a pre-recorded video, but she also found that live video and face-to-face interactions were “very similar”. “We don’t find very big differences between video call and face-to-face,” she says, explaining the only key difference is that we actually gaze at people more in video calls than in real life (she theorises this is because it’s impolite to stare at someone in real life, where prolonged eye contact can also be arousing).
But Cañigueral also discovered something else remarkable. Even though the eye contact and facial expression differences were minimal between video calls and face-to-face interactions, participants rated video calls to be “less reciprocal” than face-to-face chats.
“So a very interesting question here is, what actually gives you this sense of reciprocity in a face-to-face interaction, if we’re not finding big differences in how we use eye gaze and facial expressions?” she says. Cañigueral theorises that real live chats may be full of subtle body movements that we unconsciously coordinate with the person we’re talking to. Although these are hard to perceive, they may nonetheless make us feel closer to others. “It could be that in a video call because there are small delays in the connection, this coordination might be lost. This isn’t anything we’ve tested, but it’s an interesting idea,” she says.
On a subtle level, then, there are differences between interacting with someone via video and face-to-face. With offices continuing to reopen, new employees will continue to make “second first impressions” of colleagues. Cañigueral has experienced this first hand – she actually started her postdoctoral post in June. “I’ve only met one of my colleagues face-to-face so far,” she says. “It surprises you a bit, the first time you see them in real life.
“From seeing this colleague in 2D to seeing them in 3D, and seeing how they actually move – you’re more aware of their gestures and expressions. I guess it helps you relate more to them, in a way.”
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