August 18, 2022 — Making eye contact and picking up on subtle nonverbal cues that show someone is listening is nearly impossible during a crowded video conference. It’s hard to tell if other people on the call are listening or engaged, especially if their video is muted. This lack of social connection contributes to what some call “Zoom fatigue”.
Now, a new study suggests that using hand signals to show feelings such as empathy or togetherness during videoconference meetings could reduce this fatigue.
Researchers in London found that people in groups who used a series of hand gestures called video meeting signals (VMS) during Zoom calls reported feeling closer to other group members and more engaged in the calls , compared to those that did not use hand signals. .
The study, published August 3 in the journal PLOS Acould help solve a common problem with video conferencing by helping people feel more connected to each other in a virtual meeting space, according to Paul Hills, a researcher at University College London and CEO of the management consultancy Konektis, which trains companies to use VMS.
“What most people feel during these calls is boredom or frustration or thinking, ‘It’s just not worth it because nobody’s listening to me, and if they don’t don’t listen, I won’t listen to them. “,” says Hills, co-author of the study.
As a longtime business management consultant, Hills had worked with dozens of companies to make meetings more efficient and productive.
“I’ve always been amazed at how much time can be wasted in meetings, even before Zoom,” he says. “When Zoom came along I saw things get worse and I was tearing my hair out. I realized when I was talking to other people they were pulling their hair out too.”
Hills used hand signals for communication when he previously worked as a lifeguard in Cornwall, England, and as a mentor for a group that provides support to at-risk young people.
“I just thought there was power in the gestures here,” he says.
The VMS system Hills created includes gestures he was already using, others commonly used in sports, and signs used in American Sign Language and British Sign Language.
Wave a hand above your head means you would like to speak next. A double thumbs up means you agree. A hand on your heart is an expression of empathy and compassion. A hand massaging the top of your head lets others know you have a question. A raised hand means that you share the experience shared by another participant.
Information from companies trained by Hills to use the VMS system suggests that it was effective, but there was no clinical data to support this claim. He therefore teamed up with a team from University College London to carry out two tests to measure the correct functioning of the system.
More than 100 undergraduate psychology students participating in an online seminar at the university participated in the first trial. Students in the VMS group received a 45-minute training on the use of hand signals before the start of the seminar. The other group participated as usual.
Surveys after two sessions showed significantly higher satisfaction with online interactions among members of the VMS group, compared to the other group. They said they felt closer to their classmates, were more engaged, and thought they had learned more. They were also more likely than those in the other group to use positive language to describe the seminar.
These results were confirmed in a second trial with 137 adults who were not students. In this study, one group received a much shorter training on VMS and a second group received a short training on how to use Zoom reaction emojis. A third group used none of the signals.
As in the first study, the VMS group felt more socially connected than the untrained group. They also had more positive scores than the emoji group, which one researcher says suggests benefits come not just from reactions that convey emotion, but more specifically from physical actions.
The responses reflected what Hills had heard from some of the companies he had worked with.
“From a manager’s perspective, I know people are now listening and reacting positively or negatively to what I say,” says Heather Coupland, program manager at a business support company called Oxford Innovation Services Ltd. The company, in Oxford, England, began using hand signals in video conferencing in March 2021.
“Before, I had no idea who was listening, because I just had a circle with a name, and it’s so frustrating,” she says. “The mental health benefits of working remotely are significant.”
The study results offer an attractive option for promoting connectivity in a videoconferencing space, says Jack Tsai, PhD, professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston.
“Videoconferencing is limited in reflecting body language and even facial expressions, and so physical gestures can help amplify those expressions,” says Tsai, who was not part of the study.
“While I think visual gestures are interesting and can be a way to engage students, there is evidence that younger generations of adults are losing some ability to read body language and interpret facial expressions and emotions. because of the age of social media,” he says.
“The visual gestures in the study are designed to have specific messages tied to them and don’t rely on nuanced student interpretation, so I don’t know if that can help or make this problem any better.”
Find a VMS training video here.