Exchanging Information in a Time of Social Distancing: Are Video Conferences a Perfect Substitute for Face-to-face Meetings?
As the world adapts to life in the shadow of Covid-19, the medium through which human beings communicate is undergoing a drastic change. Due to the social distancing measures adopted by governments, activities which typically took place face-to-face have swiftly transitioned into the virtual world, as expressed by the increasing popularity of video conferencing tools, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. This process is particularly conspicuous in the business world, where the participants in board meetings, client-bank discussions, consulting, and legal services are exchanging information in an increasingly technologically-mediated environment.
While society clearly stands to gain from the many advantages offered by video conferencing, the prominent role that the technology now plays in people’s lives gives rise to a fundamental question: do video conferences differ from face-to-face communication in terms of information flow and exchange?
This question is important also in more stable times, but the changes imposed by social distancing require policy makers to quickly evaluate the implications of using video conferences, in order to decide whether and how to allow virtual communications to replace in-person meetings. Among else, policy makers face several key questions that are in need of an answer: are video conferences worse than face-to-face meetings in terms of information exchanges, or are they a perfect substitute? How do people perceive the exchange of information in a video conference meeting? And do older people—who are more exposed to the virus and face a potentially longer period of time in quarantine—behave differently than younger people?
Providing informed answers to these questions requires collecting empirical evidence and conducting a thorough analysis of the available data, especially since the existing studies on mediated communications yield highly mixed findings. In our recent paper, we report on a laboratory experiment, which specifically isolates the effect of the medium of communication (face-to-face vs video conference) on the flow of information. In the experiment, we asked subjects to solve a simple riddle, but gave them asymmetric clues—such that only if the subjects exchanged information could they be sure to solve the riddle correctly. We then randomly divided the subjects into two groups: one in which communication could be made face-to-face and another in which communication could be made via a video conference. In order to improve our understanding of the underlying processes, we also included some additional features: subjects could signal their willingness to share by investing money (which increased the probability of communication), and were additionally asked about their beliefs and perceptions.
Our analysis yielded several interesting findings. First, we found no significant differences overall in performance between the subjects who communicated face-to-face and those who communicated via a video conference. We view this as an encouraging finding for policy makers: if information flows just as well virtually, the costs of switching to mediated communication are smaller.
Second, we found that age plays an important role in the willingness to communicate virtually: subjects who are relatively older were more willing to invest money for communicating virtually, even though they were less optimistic about the benefits of virtual communication. As older people potentially face a longer period of social isolation, given that Covid-19 seems to affect the older population more harshly, this is again encouraging: older people, who must use video conferencing, also place a higher value on such mediated communication.
Third, we found evidence of a gap in post-communication perceptions: subjects who met in person reported a higher degree of giving useful information to the other side during communication, but did not report a higher degree of receiving such information. Hence, face-to-face meetings seem to install a feeling of sharing information, which isn’t reciprocated and doesn’t actually lead to better performance. This seems important from a policy-making perspective, as regulators should perhaps neglect the subjective reporting of individuals who claim that they are not receiving information, as this is only a matter of perception. However, for more stable times, this is an argument for supporting face-to-face meetings, as these can provide people with a positive feeling of giving information to others.
Our findings seem both novel and important for policy makers as well as for businesspeople, academics, and lawyers, who need to understand if they can or should switch part of their working habitat to a virtual one without worrying about information loss.
As our experiment zooms in on a very specific question—how information flows—we of course cannot provide a definite answer as to which form of communication is preferable in terms of an overall cost-benefit analysis. However, any such analysis must rely on robust evidence, and our experiment sheds light on a key aspect that is starkly under-explored. Our hope is that policy makers will embrace a data-driven approach, such as the one taken in our study, so that the regulatory framework for communications would be better suited and adapted to reality.
Dr. Hadar Jabotinsky is a Visiting Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University Law School, Israel
Dr. Roee Sarel is a Research Associate at the University of Hamburg’s Institute of Law and Economics
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