How do we decide when to use online or face face working?

Remote working tools including video conferencing have helped us get through the initial shock waves of the pandemic. Talking with someone via screen can sometimes feel as though we’re miles apart, other times it can feel as though they are in the next room.

As the “new normal” evolves, remote work options are going to be part of the business landscape, and hopefully, an easing of restrictions will require us to look hard at choosing when, or if, to meet face to face. We will be deciding when we need to collaborate in person, and what can safely be left to be done online. We will look at the skills we all need and can expect of our leaders if we are to maximise team performance. What can best

  • be resolved asynchronously,
  • benefit from synchronous working,
  • be dealt with in a person to person format.
A head to head competition of an in person versus an online team meeting is a hypothetical idea, but as a training activities designer and provider, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the two scenarios in operation. Setting technology barriers aside, issues and challenges for teams working online, particularly in the video conferencing space, are increasingly evident. The following views, with underpinning ideas, now inform my design thinking in supporting leaders and trainers looking to maximise team collaboration online and in person.

  • Part 1 - Interacting with the screen: our brains are under assault from increased cognitive load when video conferencing for long periods of time.
  • Part 2 - Interacting with others on screen: how video call communication shapes participation differently compared to a group round a table in terms of i) logistics ii) psychological safety
  • Part 3 - Interacting with problems and information on screen: how collaborative work evolves differently when on screen.
  • Part 4 - Actions for leaders to support remote collaboration in their organisations

Part 1 - Interacting with the screen: cognitive load takes-up brainpower

A two hours team zoom meeting is more tiring than a two hour face to face meeting in a pleasant conference room. Complex problem solving requires brainpower. It makes sense that if bandwidth is taken up by the psychological impact of both being seen on screen and the extra sustained effort needed to pay attention to the screen, then we have less capacity available to sustain relationship building, critical thinking, analysis and creativity.

Two things erode our cognitive power: firstly, low energy - our brains need oxygen and glucose, usually more available early in the day, and secondly, stress when the threat response is triggered. Energy, or brainpower, is diverted to deal with the stress generated by fear. This results in behaviour which moves against (aggression), moves away (avoidance), or move towards (people pleasing) the perceived threat. All these detract from independent thinking and result in energy not being available for cognitive activity. Threats may not be the sabre toothed tiger, but are likely to have the same effect although be far more subtle.

How do I look?


Research suggests that the way video conferencing is set up, where its expected that we stare straight at the camera from a sort of disembodied head is actually perceived as stressful by the brain. Being stared at by all those faces is wired in us to feel threatening.

One psychological study suggests we are comfortable with a 3 second stare. Beyond that time, our brains are wired to feel threatened, and brain power has to be diverted to lowering induced rising stress by one of three behaviours listed above, aggression, avoidance or people pleasing. Socialisation is likely to steer our behaviour to the latter two.

In addition the spotlight effect vigilance decrement(the tendency to over-estimate the extent to which others notice our behaviour or appearance) creates understandable additional load a we aim to ‘people please’.

Self conscious loads include the desire to make a positive impact, sometimes referred to as ‘impression management’, on colleagues or our line manager. Our online social presence might be the profile that keeps us in a job, gets us promotion or just keeps us in mind when work is being handed out.

Even consciously, its hard to keep your eyes from darting to your own screen image - ‘Do I look like I’m paying attention? Are those shadows under my eyes really so bad?’

We are also performing the mental gymnastics of managing a new etiquette of eye contact, too much is, well too much, too little runs the risk of looking inattentive if not downright rude.

Presenting a version of your self online seems to take more out of us, than meeting to work round a table.

Losing the plot.

Cognitive load is also explained by research into vigilance decrement. Vigilance can be defined as the ability to sustain attention and remain alert to a particular stimulus over a prolonged period of time.


The concept of vigilance decrement was introduced by Mackworth following a study of radar operators whose job was to spot German submarines, surfacing to recharge batteries, amidst other shipping signals. “Surprisingly, although their job was considered easy at the time i.e. not physically strenuous or mentally taxing, the maintenance of accurate performance turned out to be beyond human capability. Their performance became worse, the longer they were on watch.” (Helton and Russell, 2011).

Studies indicate that concentration performance is likely to decline over time either as a result of sustained attention requiring continual processing (overload), or alternatively dealing with task monotony and lack of stimulation, (under load). Either way, it seems we are likely to suffer from cognitive resource depletion and lose our ability to focus after time spent paying attention to a screen task. This will vary from individual to individual, but you can almost feel the sapping of energy as time progresses through a video call meeting.

Experiments looking to increase vigilance capacity showed that introducing novel stimuli or changes to a goal within the task, were insufficient to affect performance, and may even have added additional load. So zoom quizzes and polling, for example, are another variation on the task, but not a great help in alleviating screen induced fatigue.

The best ameliorators were not a change of task but, unsurprisingly, a break away from the task and screen itself (Helton & Russell 2015). In person to person meetings, getting up to refill coffee from the table at the end of the room, stopping by a colleague for a quick word or chat contributing to a general hubbub of pleasant off-task conviviality and social banter all relieve the intensity. It seems those football tables and water cooler moments maybe providing a valuable role after all. Other studies have indicated that VAG (video action games) used as practice can also boost resilience, more than caffeine for example, suggesting a demographic implication for future online collaboration.


However its hard to get away from the fact that online working as a team, usually requires sustained sitting in a chair staring ahead at a screen with little scope for diversion - unless, for some, its the distraction of demands for attention from our cats and children - not necessarily in that order.

Human touch and connection reduces biological stress

And a quick thought about what happens when new team members come on board, undoubtedly pragmatically, accepting the situation for what it is, and also with the same uncertainties as joining a group round the table. However our new entrant probably has additional raised stress levels as described above.

No hugs, handshakes or even elbow bumps here to ameliorate stress, with literally human contact that can release oxytocin, and reduce cortisol levels that disperse tension. Equally missing are messages of support via body language and use of personal space to get alongside someone new.

What helps?

1. Assuming we have made the choice - or just have no option - to be on screen, what helps? Audio only mode releases more of our brain’s working memory, so phone calls or switching off video can help. The use of lip synching avatars does the same although as yet that is not widely available, and some will find it distracting.

2. Taking breaks away from the screen in between meetings and or tasks, use the stairs, make a drink, sort the post, water the plants, something ideally involving physical exercise to allow our brains to reset, ready for the next task without ‘reach’ back to the previous task - aka just getting muddled up as meetings blur into each other. A recent study indicated superior performance by those who took short breaks over the the group that worked without a break.

3. Get as much expertise as possible about using technology and setting up - and share it with your users. Familiarity with screen use is helping, understanding our options of filters and the importance of lighting, (we are all TV presenters now!) is helping us feel more relaxed about being on screen. Casual is cool. Anything goes. Including those insisting on playing the Olympic games of backgrounds. My son last joined me online upside down and under the sea. Other backgrounds are available.

4. Managers would do well to insist on screen free time during the working day or at least week for their teams, perhaps over lunch each day, or on a regular day of the week such as mid week screen ban for Wednesday afternoon for example. This would give people a chance to recharge, get some joined up thinking time, and yes, probably put the washing in. If productivity and well being increase despite the laundry getting done, surely that’s a win.

5. Most of all, perhaps - if you can send information in advance, and crucially meet over the phone, rather than the screen. Its not quite the same dynamic as ‘video off’ as you can move around and don’t have to wonder why they’re not happy to be on screen when you are. This will reduce your cognitive load to both talk to the caller and deal with the content of the call itself, and leave you less fatigued for the rest of your working day. Suggest it next time you agree a meeting….your brain will thank you for it.

Other posts to follow.
Part 2 - Interacting with others on screen: how video call communication shapes participation differently compared to a group round a table in terms of i) latency ii) psychological safety
Part 3 - Interacting with problems and information on screen: how collaborative work evolves differently when on screen.
Part 4 - Actions for leaders to support remote collaboration in their organisations

Connect with article author, Judith Cantrell on Linkedin, to receive updates.