Video chats and conference calls are a regular part of work for younger professionals, some of whom have only worked remotely. Now that the coronavirus outbreak has forced many companies to transition as much of their workforce as possible to a distributed team, Zoom usage has boomed from 10 million to 200 million daily active users in just 3 months.
In coming years, remote teams are likely to use even more immersive technologies to connect and collaborate. But before we gush about virtual reality offices of the future, we should understand why video took decades to follow audio into becoming a popular means of communication at home and at work.
Why workplace video failed for 50 years
To a younger worker raised with Skype and FaceTime, it might seem nuts that previous generations balked at using video to chat. For fifty years, though, video calls were met with reluctance. The idea seemed cool: AT&T had demonstrated a video phone call way back in 1927. After television became a household fixture in the 1950’s, comic-strip detective Dick Tracy began sporting a wristwatch-like videophone in 1964. AT&T’s Bell Labs, packed with the brightest minds and biggest budgets, spent half a billion dollars eagerly developing its Picturephone between 1966 and 1973.
Video calls seemed the natural next step. The Picturephone appeared in a touching scene between a space-bound scientist and his young daughter in the futuristic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. AT&T’s debut of corporate Picturephone service in Pittsburgh in 1970 excited executives. The Picturephone was impressive leading-edge technology. Bell Labs was known for mind-blowing innovations—they developed much of the tech that led to the Internet.
Yet AT&T corporate historian Sheldon Hochheiser told The New York Times in 2000 that the Picturephone was “the most famous failure in the history of the Bell system.”Up until then, further video-phone products around the world had also flopped. Why?
In addition to technical shortcomings, the high cost of early equipment and calls, and a lack of other people with Picturephones to talk with, according to Hochheiser, ''it turned out that it wasn't entirely clear that people wanted to be seen on a telephone.'’
At the time, only celebrities and reluctant newsmakers appeared onscreen. The idea of being live on TV, even one-to-one, made many people uncomfortable. They’d never done it, nor had anyone else they knew. Voice-only calls offered an instinctive dimension of privacy and control over a conversation.
Workplace video finally takes off
In the two decades since the New York Times found Picturephone had stalled, several changes have led people to change their minds about video calls. First, with cameras in most phones and easy instant posting to YouTube and Facebook, being live on camera has become commonplace for people who aren’t TV or movie stars. It’s no longer surprising or weird to see yourself in an online video, or have a video chat with distant family. It’s not even special anymore.
"The addition of tone and facial expression goes a long way to mutual understanding."—Megan Berry, Vice President of Product for Octane AI
For corporate management, the costs of equipment and calls have dropped from VIP pricing to cheaper than travel. The consumerization of video chat has made it easier for IT departments to set up and support.
The biggest change is one with which video calls are entwined: Remote teamwork, which has accelerated in the past few years. Stanford’s oft-cited 2015 study concluded that working from home was simply the better option most of the time for many workers and their employers. A 2019 study by Upwork predicted three of every four teams would have remote workers within the coming decade. 2020’s shelter-in-place orders have flipped the question: Who can’t work from home in the future?
For remote collaborators, video isn’t a perk but a platform. Megan Berry, Vice President of Product for Octane AI, which builds e-commerce tools, is the author of a widely read Complete Guide to Working on a Remote Team. Berry said that video is an essential foundation on which far-flung workers can come together as a team.
“Slack cannot solve everything,” she said. “Sometimes purely text back and forth can become contentious. In those situations, we strongly encourage our team to jump on a video call to resolve a discussion quickly. The addition of tone and facial expression goes a long way to mutual understanding. It's all too easy to write something that sounds contentious because the tone you were going for does not come across.”
Berry mandates regular video check-ins with employees. “For all my direct reports, we have a weekly 1:1 that's a video call,” she said. “It allows me to get a sense of how they're doing beyond what you can tell in text. You see their facial expressions, hear their tone, and it's a good time to ask more informal questions about their life in addition to questions about work.”
"With work increasingly going gig—part time and remote—video conferencing will provide the glue to keep virtual teams connected in a way that text apps cannot.”—Julie M. Albright
Julie M. Albright, a digital sociologist at USC and author of Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream, said younger, video-friendly workers are driving the change: “Younger workers are desiring or even demanding to work remotely. Yet with the majority of communication being non-verbal, much is left behind in a text-only environment. With work increasingly going gig—part time and remote—video conferencing will provide the glue to keep virtual teams connected in a way that text apps cannot.”
As a sociologist, Albright said, the human connection video provides is essential: “Videoconferencing brings back the nuance to remote conversations—and allows team bonding— the inverse of text-based apps which encourage separation and emotional distance.”
You can tell that video conferencing for work has arrived simply by the number of SEO-optimized content marketing articles that pop up in a search for “video conferencing problems.” Both small startups and corporate giants wrangle with the evolving technology’s challenges: Technical glitches, multiple video platforms—Skype, Google, Zoom, Slack—that employees must learn to use, IT governance and security worries that confidential business talk will be eavesdropped.
And as much as society has changed since the days of Picturephone, there are still people of all ages who simply hate being on camera. Anyone who has done enough Zoom knows that an informal etiquette has emerged: You needn’t be on camera for every call, but it’s considered unprofessional not to at least show up for introductory meetings or those where the client or manager insists on it.
Albright said that dodging video in certain cases is already seen as unprofessional. Times have changed among work teams, she said, from the days when engineers, senior managers and others with higher status were allowed to refuse to appear as even a photo online. “Now it’s like, ‘OK Boomer,’” she said. “You don’t exist. Or they wonder, what are you hiding?”
Video’s future will feel like you’re in the room
As video cameras become as much a part of work as the speakerphone, even more advanced VR and AR technologies are being developed with an eye toward making remote collaboration seem even more like a side-by-side sitdown. Will we don goggles or glasses for future work talk? Gamers are often enthusiastic about it, while non-gamers at a recent industry event eyed a VR meeting demo as warily as their grandparents might have approached the Picturephone.
Having tested several VR meeting demos, and as a video producer myself, the future of video conferencing will be making it more pragmatic: We’ll only adopt what feels more like being in person than what we have now. Most current technologies don’t yet. VR avatars, which render collaborators onscreen as videogame-like characters, are the opposite of what people want when its time to hammer out a conflict. They’re that outspoken Facebook commenter whose photo is a cartoon character.
The future of remote conversation is more likely to follow what happened to Hollywood movies a hundred years ago. The first films were made by pointing a stationary camera at an onstage play. Directors soon learned to use the camera to make viewers feel as if they were there in person, zooming in on an important person or object in a scene, panning across a room, and sometimes watching one actor’s face closely as another spoke. We do all these things when we’re in the room.
Today’s video conferences resemble early movies: They’re a plus over sound and text, but video conferencing systems still have limitations compared to face-to-face interaction. You can approximate looking around the room, watching someone other than the current presenter, or looking at one thing while hearing about another. But it still feels remote. Many workers sent to “WFH” during the pandemic quickly learned a video meeting can be more exhausting than sitting around a table at the office, because paying attention through a camera lens takes more effort.
Hollywood today has another lesson for the office: filmed entertainment of all kinds use computer graphics and special effects far more than viewers realize, but with an eye toward us mistaking it for reality rather than fantasy. VR and AR conferencing likewise need to advance to where like we can at least pretend for an hour that we’re in a real room with real people.
That room will have a great view. But more important are the many ways we interact with one another in person that are part of work. Leaders loom over tables. Coworkers watch each others’ faces and exchange glances. They note who is paying attention or not. The best future conferencing tech will go beyond digitizing formal business rituals to let you discreetly lock eyeballs with your veteran co-contractor: This seems like a bad idea. Which one of us is going to speak up? Ah, I see it’s me.
Updated April 16, 2020 to add information related to COVID-19 and Zoom usage.