Bad Audio Dynamite: How poor sound and vision messes up the working day

Removing the emote from remote

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Sponsored I’m not alone in dreading the video calls and meetings we’re all having to make at the moment, am I? They can be so stressful - you have to grapple with variable sound quality, negotiate timing delays and work out when it’s your turn to speak, plus it’s horrible to look at yourself all day. In short, video conferencing, so essential to collaborative working, is lagging behind other elements in the remote working toolkit.

Remote working is here to stay, and we know that it will continue to grow once we return to some form of normality. Prior to the Covid19 pandemic you would often see a mismatch between a business’ wish to have staff working where they could be seen and managed and an employee’s wish to work remotely.

Data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of people working remotely has increased by nearly 250,000 over a decade and in April this year, 49.2 per cent of adults in employment were working at home due to social distancing measures. The pandemic has shown businesses that they don’t need to be suspicious of remote working - necessity and subsequent successful outcomes mean the mistrust has gone - it has served to accelerate the trend rather than as an agent of change.

If remote working is changing the way we work then the meeting culture must also change. You can’t simply move an in-person meeting structure to a video-conference call and expect the same results. Many of the pain points are different.

Typically, in-person meetings are clearly led with someone taking the “power seat” at the conference table. You can see everybody, you can see their body language, you can establish eye contact when you need to, there’s conversational give and take, and the etiquette around who should speak when is clear.

Noise annoys

All this vanishes in a virtual meeting, and the quality of audio becomes a major pain point to be addressed. A research report, Understanding Sound Experiences from EPOS/IPSOS, surveyed people working in companies of more than 50 employees during January and February this year, and found that nearly nine out 10 of them have experienced at least one pain point due to poor sound quality during calls or virtual meetings.

Their most commonly-cited problems included excessive background noise (42 per cent),- when we sitting at desks in an office it was noisy colleagues around us, now it’s family or flatmates crashing around behind us, the dog barking, music playing, and so on - having to repeat themselves (34 per cent), and asking for information to be repeated (34 per cent). The Understanding Sound Experiences report also found lots of other issues stemming from poor audio quality – bad connections that cut off speech and the need to send follow-up emails to clarify key points, for example.

All these issues lead to frustration and wasted time. They also translate into a significant business cost – EPOS/IPSOS worked out that they equate to nearly 30 minutes a week of lost productivity, or £389.48 per employee per annum.

Poor sound also has an emotional impact on users, the report found: 35 per cent of respondents felt frustration, irritation and annoyance due to bad audio, while 25 per cent said they experienced some stress, and 15 per cent said they felt embarrassment or a lack of confidence. A poor audio experience has an impact on a user’s emotional wellbeing as their productivity.

These sound problems can be largely mitigated by good quality audio equipment. Over three-quarters of the respondents to the EPOS report said that their key audio pain points were alleviated by good audio to a great or moderate extent. Good quality headphones make it easier to take sensitive calls and they cut out ambient noise. If they’re easy to connect, comfortable to use with good outgoing sound clarity and twinned with a good quality microphone, then they are a hugely positive first step and go a long way towards resolving audio issues in virtual meetings.

Unfortunately, the issues with virtual meetings aren’t limited to sound. There are also all those looming heads, silent audiences and delays that interrupt our communication that put us on edge. Researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab are looking into the so-called “Zoom fatigue”, that comes with all these virtual meetings.

Jeremy Bailenson, who heads up the lab, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “in a normal work meeting of about 10 people, everyone is talking, looking at notes, perhaps typing. But the time spent in mutual gaze - looking directly into the eyes of one another - is tiny. When it occurs, it lasts only a few seconds.

With Zoom, a 10-person meeting is often set up in a grid that reminds us of The Brady Bunch. Each person stares right at you from the screen for the entire meeting. This has advantages - people are forced to pay attention. But it is also draining”.

If this constant gaze is unsettling, then Bailenson adds that humans are evolved derive meaning from social signals like the flick of an eye, none of which are synchronous on video conferencing. In virtual meetings, we miss the synchrony of gestures, movement and timing that comes with face-to-face communication, and this lack of synchrony is tiring. In fact, synchrony of interaction is fundamental to us as humans, researchers have even discovered that an infant’s movements synchronise with the speech of its carer as early as the first day of life. Another reason why video calls can be so draining.

During in-person meetings we can control our personal space; in virtual meetings our personal space is defined by the size of facial images and how far we sit from your screen. The Stanford researchers have found that larger screens can stimulate our fight-or-flight response, so those large looming heads are subconsciously threatening - people unconsciously flinch when exposed to large virtual faces. Playing around with settings and backdrops can help with this, and you can also play around with the video streaming, perhaps turning off camera feed for all participants other than the person talking.

When your conference table is replaced by a computer screen, who takes the power seat? Video conference services like Zoom will typically move faces around the screen depending on who arrives at the meeting first and who speaks the most. For now at least, the power seat is something we have to sort out among ourselves - with those of us who have worked out how they can manipulate the perceived power position on the computer screen at a subtle advantage over those who haven’t.

Video calls also mean that you see yourself as you think others see you, and this can be unsettling as it brings in another level of stimulus that you don’t have in a face-to-face meeting It can be like looking at a new person because you’re seeing aspects of your behaviour that you’ve not seen before.

Sound and vision

Good lighting - natural light and side lighting work better than overhead lighting - and a camera or screen positioned at eye level so that it appears as if you’re looking at the person you’re talking to when you look at the screen, can help to alleviate some of the anxiety this causes. And then, if it all gets too much, some applications will let you turn this feature off.

There are straightforward fixes for some of the anxieties caused by virtual meetings – high quality audio equipment, together with ground rules about multitasking and guidelines on how long people should stay on calls can go a long way towards reducing the stress levels of everyone involved in a virtual meeting.

And there’s ongoing research into making virtual places more comfortable, with Silicon Valley startups working on the creation of personal animated 3D avatars that can convey emotion, for example. Like face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings need to be efficient in order to function effectively as a business tool, and that means reducing the mental burden and discomfort that goes with having them.

Sponsored by EPOS


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