Can video conferencing apps mimic or replace human-to-human connection?

I was contacted by a journalist writing a story about workplace communication, why human beings need human-to-human connection in the office, and whether technology can mimic or replace face-to-face human-to-human connection. She wanted to know if video teleconferencing apps and technologies are getting better at mimicking or even replacing face-to-face human-to-human connection. I am reposting my responses below.

1. Are video teleconferencing apps and technologies capable of replicating and feeding that human connection that you say is so essential to our brains?

As much as we would like to think that human beings are capable of duplicating and mimicking physical human connection, the answer is no. Human beings have not been able to virtually replicate the in-person connection. Perhaps the biggest reason is that, according to social psychologists, our human brains were created and wired to connect and interact with others and to do so in physical proximity to one another.

We can see how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people were Zoom-fatigued. That is, we “connected” online and virtually—seeing each other’s faces and hearing one another talk—but at the same time feeling that it’s just no where the same as doing so in person. Indeed, researchers have found that the greatest bonding experience actually occurs during in-person interaction rather than by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging.

2. What are the nonverbal cues that enrich our communication? Why are they so important to connecting and getting work done?

The nonverbal cues that help further enrich human communication include gestures, body language, as well as tone, pauses, inflection, and volume.

According to communications experts, nonverbal communication is important because it tends to be perceived as more believable than verbal communication. For instance, if you say “I’m fine,” but your body language communicates something different (such as you are grimacing, with the corners of your mouth turned down), people will most likely not believe what you told them (your verbal communication) and instead believe your nonverbal communication.

3. Are there times when face-to-face is not necessarily right?

I believe that there may be times when it may not be in the best interests of either or both parties to meet face-to-face. This can be when emotions run extremely high, when there’s protracted interpersonal conflict, or when there’s risk to psychological or physical safety. In these scenarios, a third party mediator might need to step in to de-escalate and diffuse the situation prior to meeting in person.

4. Will the push to recreate human-to-human connection via apps and video conferencing change our brains? Can we find the same kind of psychological connection through online groups like Slack and Facebook groups?

I don’t think our brains will “change” because of the use of apps and video conferencing softwares. The same applies to online group chats such as Slack or Facebook groups. Our minds adapt to a new/different way to communicate but the need to connect—physically—will always be there. As I mentioned in my answer to #1, researchers have discovered that the best and greatest bonding experience happens during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership Development Advisor & Consultant