Aug. 18, 2022 – Making eye contact and picking up on subtle nonverbal cues that show that someone is listening is nearly impossible on a crowded video conference call. It’s hard to know if others on the call are listening or engaged, especially if they have their video turned off. That 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 solidarity during video conference meetings could lessen that fatigue.
Researchers in London found that people in groups that used a series of hand gestures called Video Meeting Signals (VMS) during Zoom calls reported feeling closer to others in the group and more engaged in the calls, compared to those who didn’t use hand signals.
The study, published Aug. 3 in the journal PLOS One, could help address a common problem with video conferencing by helping people feel more connected to one another in a virtual meeting space, according to Paul Hills, a researcher at University College London and CEO of the management consulting company Konektis, which trains companies to use VMS.
“What most people just experience during these calls is boredom or frustration or thinking, ‘It’s just not worth it because no one is listening, and if they’re not going to listen to me, I’m not going to listen to them,'” says Hills, who co-authored the study.
As a longtime business management consultant, Hills had worked with dozens of companies to make meetings more efficient and productive.
“I’d always been amazed at how much time can be wasted in meetings, even before Zoom,” he says. “When Zoom came along, I just saw it get worse, and I was tearing my hair out. I realized when I was talking to other people, they were also tearing their hair out.”
Hills used hand signals for communication when he once 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’s power in gestures here,” he says.
The VMS system created by Hills includes the gestures he already used, others commonly used in sports, and signs used in American Sign Language and British Sign Language.
Waving a hand over your head means you’d like to speak next. A double thumbs up means you agree. A hand over your heart is an expression of empathy and compassion. A hand massaging the top of your head tells others you have a question. A raised hand means you share the experience shared by another participant.
Information from companies Hills trained to use the VMS system suggested it was effective, but there was no clinical data to back that up. So he partnered with a team at University College London to do two trials to measure how well the system works.
More than 100 psychology undergraduate students in an online seminar at the university took part in the first trial. Students in the VMS group had a 45-minute training session on how to use the hand signals before the seminar began. The other group took part as usual.
Surveys done after two sessions showed much higher satisfaction with online interactions among those in the VMS group, compared to the other group. They reported feeling 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 findings were confirmed in a second trial with 137 adults who were not students. In that study, one group received a much briefer training in VMS and a second group did a short training on how to use Zoom reaction emojis. A third group didn’t use either of the signals.
As in the first study, the VMS group felt more socially connected than the group with no training. They also had more positive scores than those in the emoji group, which a researcher says suggests the benefits come not just from reactions that convey emotion, but specifically from physical actions.
The responses mirrored what Hills had heard from some of the companies he’d worked with.
“From a manager’s perspective, I know that people are listening now and responding positively or negatively to what I am saying,” says Heather Coupland, a program manager at a business support company called Oxford Innovation Services Ltd. The company, in Oxford, England, began using the hand signals in video conferences in March 2021.
“Beforehand, I had no idea who was listening, as I just had a circle with a name, and it is so frustrating,” she says. “The benefits to remote-working mental health are significant.”
The study findings offer an interesting option for promoting connectivity in a video conference space, says Jack Tsai, PhD, a professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
“Video conference is limited in reflecting body language and even facial expressions, and so physical gestures may help amplify those expressions,” says Tsai, who was not part of the study.
“While I think the visual gestures are interesting and can be a way to engage students, there is some evidence that younger generations of adults are losing some abilities to read body language and interpret facial expressions and emotions due to the age of social media,” he says.
“The visual gestures in the study are designed to have specific messages tied to them and does not rely on students interpreting them in any way with nuance, so I don’t know if that may improve or worsen this issue.”