Video conference during COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, people using technology work at home remotely concept, man and woman teammate working remotely using smartphone or mobile phone for meeting.
Nuthawut, Adobe Stock.

Can Technology Replace Human Connection?

Face masks. Six feet apart. No handshakes. Zoom-fatigue. The pandemic has limited all of our natural instincts for personal connection. Yet as humans, our brains are wired for personal interaction.

In fact, that need to connect with other people is so strong that it can top our desire for food and shelter, argues UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, author of the book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. He says that social connection is the key to our success as a species and the reason we evolved large brains in the first place. “You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t connect with other people, nothing will come of it,” says Lieberman. “You can’t build a rocket ship by yourself.” 

Today, we rely on email, social media, and productivity apps like Slack to connect and move work further, but, while helpful, they don’t replace the power of face-to-face interactions. In fact, researchers at Cornell University and Western University found that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful than email requests.

The reason? Non-verbal cues make all the difference in trust. You pick up a lot by just seeing a person, even though most of it’s done unconsciously. A person’s pupils dilate when they’re excited or happy, and they constrict when they are sad. You absorb this emotional information when you meet people in person, and simply by looking into their eyes. Face-to-face, it’s harder to hide if you’re not happy with something. Human touch, too, works to build trust, causing the centers of the brain associated with rewards to activate. 

Now here’s the dilemma: With handshakes and hugs off the table for the foreseeable future, and face masks and remote work inevitable, how do we stay connected as humans at work in the face of a pandemic?

We’ve instinctively turned to video meetings, which, as it turns out, can actually be the next best thing to face-to-face interaction—some say much as 80% as effective. 

“On video, you can feel like you’re seeing them frequently even if you’ve only connected on video,” says Laura Vanderkam, a workplace consultant and author. “Our brains have a hard time distinguishing the difference between seeing someone on screen and in person.”

Neuroscientists also refer to something called “mirror neurons,” or the part of your brain that reacts similarly to whether a person is smiling or frowning. So if you’re excited about a project and you want others to be the same, it’s better if they see your expression. 

Our non-verbal communication allows us to transmit and pick up hidden messages. According to Albert Mehrabian’s 1971 book, Silent Messages, that communication includes a “general feeling, a verbal feeling, a vocal feeling and a facial feeling.” Often, it’s facial expressions that will dominate the message you receive. 

Yet video isn’t the most natural. Lag times mean people may talk over each other. Audio quality is sketchy. And it’s tricky to include multiple people in a room on a call, without shifting the computer or weird fish-eye, distorted camera views. 

This problem has been top of mind for San Francisco entrepreneur and engineer Aurangzeb Khan. In 2012, he started PanaCast, a company that would build an 180-degree video and audio system that could more closely replicate real-life interactions. In 2019, PanaCast was acquired by well-known audiovisual brand Jabra.

The Jabra PanaCast audio and video system will be included in ROOM’s in-office modular meeting rooms, but they won’t be your ordinary video tool. Each system relies on artificial intelligence, 13 megapixel cameras, and six processors that simultaneously patch together seamless video streaming. The result: a realistic wide-angle view that allows a viewer to see a group of people sitting at a table—without any strange distortions or fish-eye views. The technology also includes Intelligent Zoom on whoever is speaking and eliminates any kind of audio latency. “We wanted that in-person feel,” says Khan.

We’ve been trying for decades to replicate the in-person interactions via technology. In the 1990s, Cisco sold massive telepresence systems used by Fortune 500 CEOs to participate in far away board meetings that cost half a million dollars per room and required $10,000 a month for bandwidth capacity. PanaCast’s processor and camera technology, by comparison, fits into the palm of your hand and costs less than $600. “We’ve democratized it for everyone,” Khan says.

But there are still other problems with video. Long, endless video meetings have led to Zoom fatigue, or that draining feeling you get from video calls. The problem is that the only way to show you’re paying attention on a video call is to look at the camera, resulting in a “constant gaze” that’s uncomfortable, tiring and not natural. 

“In person, we are able to use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at others in the room. On a video call, because we are all sitting in different homes, if we turn to look out the window, we worry it might seem like we’re not paying attention,” write workplace experts Molly West Duffy and Liz Fosslien in the Harvard Business Review.

People may also feel drained simply because they schedule too many video meetings. A lot of work in the office is done informally, in which you stop by someone’s desk to ask a question. When we went remote, people began scheduling Zoom calls instead of just picking up the phone for that quick question. “People were trying to replicate what’s going on in the office, but doing it with a one-hour Zoom call,” Vanderkam says.

Vanderkam suggests building 10 minutes of casual chit-chat into the agenda prior to the start of a meeting, allowing for people to connect just as they might by entering a physical meeting room early.

San Francisco entrepreneur Badri Rajasekar came up with another way to mimic the natural conversation that occurs in the office: a lightweight conversational video app. His company, Jamm, lets people have quick, spontaneous video chats with team members. Within the platform, each person has their own video avatar, which sits on the desktops of team members. When clicked, the avatar opens up for easy video conversations between two people or more. People can also send their teammates video messages back and forth. 

By splitting large video meetings into smaller group calls, it lets conversations breathe—so rather than sitting through an hour-long video meeting, people can have fewer, shorter conversations that allow for deep thought in between. It also gives coworkers more personal interaction, says Rajasekar. This helps build camaraderie and team culture. Plus, it changes employees from passive listeners to active participants. These changes in structure can make for a more efficient workday flow that more closely approximates the serendipitous watercooler conversations and brainstorms that naturally occur in offices, says Rakasekar. For instance, when he has coffee in the mornings, he opens up Jamm as an opportunity for his own team members to see he is available and join him for casual chats—just as he might open an office door or sit on a couch in a physical office.

As we begin to head back into the office again, work will increasingly become hybrid—meaning a combination of remote and in-office time. Success will lie in finding ways to create human connection with those working remotely. (Not to mention the importance to students and teachers in K-12 schools and universities, too). 

“We all want to be included,” says Khan of PanaCast. “Technology will hopefully annihilate that distance.”

Inside the office, modular private meeting rooms with advanced video technology will become the norm, allowing for interaction between faraway colleagues and socially-distanced people in the office. 5G wireless technology will improve our connection speeds and bandwidth for data on mobile devices, granting richer, more reliable ways of keeping in touch.

In the years to come, we may find even more realistic connections via virtual reality, 360-degree videos and holograms—light field recordings that, when reproduced, can appear as static or dynamic three-dimensional visuals. 

Holograms have already been used for virtual concert performances for the likes of deceased artists Frank Zappa and Roy Orbison. The technology paves the way for “holoporting,” in which two people wearing head-mounted displays would communicate in person via holographs, according to the Future Today Institute. Your contact’s likeness would be projected into your physical office space. It’d be like a 3D video chat in which the person you’re speaking to could interact with objects in your environment. 

It may sound far fetched, but in many ways, the pandemic has amplified our need for connection and accelerated the pace of technology that will get us there. Because while we may or may not return to the handshake, the need to see, hear and connect in an authentic way is wired inside our brains.