Commuting from your bed to your desk without ever leaving the house is undoubtedly convenient. But with remote work comes some notable downsides. Eye contact is impossible, high-fives are awkward, and it can be hard to read the room when your colleagues are confined to tiny squares on your screen. These new work customs have us wondering: is it possible to recreate the power of in-person interactions online?
In this episode, our host Kyla Sims sits down with researcher and psychologist Dr. Sophie Wohltjen to discuss the neuroscience behind eye contact and what does it mean for human connection? Plus, remote-work veteran and author Jennifer Britton talks about working remotely before it was cool, way before Zoom or cell phones.
From staring strangers in the eyes, to remote leadership, this episode takes a look at the benefits and barriers of online collaboration.
Sophie Wohltjen: I am five times as expressive on a Zoom call. My back is super straight and I'm responding hugely with my face, and actually it’s true after very long Zoom call, I will come off of it and be like, "Wow, I have a headache."
Kyla Sims: Remember when you used to have meetings in real rooms with walls and chairs and whiteboards and coffee and flip charts, and Joe from accounting's BO? Yeah. For people like me who work 100% from home, that feels like another world, a lifetime ago. These days, it's all about the tech, whether it's Teams, Slack, text, audio notes, Zoom, whatever, meetings just don't hit like they used to. Don't get me wrong, bad meetings are bad meetings, but Zoom meetings have really zapped any joy that could have been found in these collaborative problem- solving sessions. If you've been working from home or on a hybrid team, you've probably noticed by now that our technology- enabled communication misses the little physical characteristics of collaboration that make it feel good, like body language, high fives, and perhaps most of all, eye contact.
And if you're like me, and you work remotely and live alone, you know how weird it can get when you haven't made direct eye contact with another human for more than a couple of days. So what does this mean for our work, for our creativity? What is lost and gained when we can't look each other in the eye? Imagine for a moment the greatest creative collaborators in history, Lennon and McCartney, Watson and Crick, Ben and Jerry, or what if Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton try to work out one of their iconic duets over Zoom?
Dolly Parton: All right, I'm waiting to be let in. Am I the organizer? I don't know. Oh, there we go. Kenny, can you hear me, Kenny?
Kenny Rogers: I tell you, Dolly, I can see you and you are looking just as pretty as a pearl, but I can't hear a thing. I think y'all may be on mute.
Dolly Parton: Oh, all right. Oh, fair. Okay. How about now?
Kenny Rogers: Darn it, Dolly. It's just down there on the bottom right.
Dolly Parton: Am I still on mute?
Kenny Rogers: I can hear you loud and clear, darling.
Dolly Parton: There we go.
Kenny Rogers: Okay. So the song is called Islands in the Stream. Here are the lyrics. Can you see my screen?
Dolly Parton: No, I can't see.
Kenny Rogers: I think you need to give me permission.
Dolly Parton: Oh, okay.
Kenny Rogers: I'm so proud of this song, Dolly.
Dolly Parton: I can't see anything, Kenny, but you have my permission. Just go right ahead.
Kenny Rogers: No, it's not a matter of consent, darling. It's just with your-
Dolly Parton: Right down here?
Kenny Rogers: ... little mouse there.
Dolly Parton: Oh, I see. Okay.
Kenny Rogers: Just give it a click with your mouse.
Dolly Parton: All right.
Kyla Sims: In this episode, we are exploring the cognitive science of why in- person communication is so effective and crucial for collaboration, and what happens when we try to replicate these experiences online. We obviously can work together over video calls, we do it all the time, but is it possible to create the same magic, that creative spark, with a screen between us?
You're listening to Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Kyla Sims. You might remember an article in the New York Times called ‘To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This’. The author, Mandy Len Catron, talks about a study by psychologist, Arthur Aron, who claimed to have made two people fall in love in his laboratory. The experiment involves each person asking the other a series of 36 questions.
Speaker 1: Do you have a secret hunch about how you'll die?
Speaker 2: For what in life do you feel most grateful?
Speaker 1: If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
Speaker 2: Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time?
Speaker 1: Can you tell me your most embarrassing moment?
Speaker 2:Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire, after saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to save-
Kyla Sims: Participants are supposed to answer all 36 questions in an hour and a half and then stare into each other's eyes for four full minutes. Wait, what? Four minutes? That's a long time.
Sophie Wohltjen: It was incredibly uncomfortable and ultimately, a little bit boring.
Kyla Sims: Sophie Wohltjen tried it with her partner.
Sophie Wohltjen: But earlier in our relationship, and I would not say that it caused us to fall in love
Kyla Sims: Regardless, Sophie is a big believer in the importance of eye contact. She spent years studying it as a graduate student.
Sophie Wohltjen: I am a psychologist, specifically a post- doctoral research fellow at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. So what I do most of the time during the day is study human interaction. So specifically, I'm really interested in the various ways that we connect with each other non- verbally.
Kyla Sims: Why is eye contact important when it comes to communicating?
Sophie Wohltjen:So there's a lot of research out there on eye contact, not just mine, that is looking at this exact question, why is it important? There are theories out there that it's this dual communication mechanism such that when you're looking into somebody else's eyes, you're not only getting information from them, but you're also self- referencing seeing their impression of you. So it's a really deep way to get a sense for how your partner is responding to the things that you're saying and what they're thinking of you.
Kyla Sims: So let's talk about your eye contact experiment. Where did the idea for this experiment come from?
Sophie Wohltjen:Yeah. So when I started graduate school at Dartmouth, I knew that my advisor, Thalia Wheatley, had done some research previously. And specifically, what she had found is that when you eye track two different people, one who's telling a story and one who is listening to that story, when those two people are sharing attention with one another, so they're sort of paying attention to the same things at the same time, their pupil dilations will synchronize.
So I was really interested in this finding because I just thought, "Who would've even thought of this? How did you even think to look at this is amazing." I wanted to dig into that. I wanted to understand what was actually going on there when two people were synchronizing their pupil dilations. First thing that we thought of was eye contact because while you don't actually have to be looking at each other to share attention and synchronize your pupils, it's a very clear social signal, it involves your eyes. So we were like, "This is clearly the first thing that we should check out here."
I use these eye trackers that are like glasses. So they just are affixed to their face so they can sort of move around naturally as they might in an actual conversation. These glasses have little infrared sensors at the base and those infrared sensors continuously monitor the diameter of your pupil while you're talking, you're doing whatever it is that you're supposed to be doing in the experiment. So after that, that gives us a dynamic trace of the changes in pupil size over the course of the conversation.
Kyla Sims: So, you get people hooked up to these funny glasses and then what happens?
Sophie Wohltjen: You get people hooked up to the funny glasses and then there's a script that I tell them, which is, "In this study, you're going to have a conversation. This conversation's going to last 10 minutes. You can talk about whatever you want." And also I say, "I know the glasses look a little funny, but try to ignore them during the conversation." And then I tell them the conversation is going to be video and audio recorded, and I let them go. So they can just talk about whatever they want for 10 minutes. Once 10 minutes are up, I will come back in, take off their glasses, let them stretch and whatever. And then they will go into separate rooms and actually rewatch the conversation that they just had and continuously rate how engaged they were in the conversation to get a behavioral measure of how much they were actually attending during that conversation.
Kyla Sims: Oh, that's so interesting. And are these people strangers? Do they know each other already?
Sophie Wohltjen: They are strangers in as much as Dartmouth undergraduate students can be. So it's a very small school, so often, they have met each other before, but that's the highest level of knowledge of each other that we allowed them to have.
Kyla Sims: So what did the data say after these experiments?
Sophie Wohltjen: So what we expected really is to see that people were more synchronized when they were making eye contact. And that, I think, was halfway true. Because I think we were able to collect this data at such a fine time resolution, we were able to look more closely in time at what was happening around these instances of eye contact than I think other studies have previously been able to do. So what we've found is that while people were synchronized up to the point of eye contact, so people would increase pupillary synchrony up to the onset of eye contact, at which point pupillary synchrony would hit a peak. And while they made eye contact, pupillary synchrony would decline and only start returning to baseline once eye contact was broken. That was not expected and quite interesting.
Kyla Sims: What do you think that means? What can that tell us?
Sophie Wohltjen: Yeah. So the way that I have been thinking about it is that the increase in pupillary synchrony up to the point of eye contact can be indicative of this increase in engagement, this increase in connection, this increase in sharing attention with another person that's then realized with this moment of eye contact. And then during the moment of eye contact, you get this, like I was saying before, this sort of self- referential signal like, " This person is looking at me, I now have to go back into myself, come up with something new to contribute to the conversation so that we can actually keep this thing moving forward." This sort of decoupling to go back into yourself, figure out what you're going to say next is what we're seeing when people are actually making eye contact.
Kyla Sims: So it's like this self- conscious thing, which I think a lot of people can actually relate to. It's like when you're talking to someone then all of a sudden you make eye contact and it's like, "Oh, this just got very intimate."
Sophie Wohltjen: Yeah, exactly. And it's why people don't make long instances of eye contact. The average length of eye contact in my study, I think, was a second and a half or something like that. And that even was pretty long. People do not make it for very much time. It's more like a check- in like, " Oh, okay, pull back out."
Kyla Sims: And I'm curious, have studies in eye contact been done around different kinds of relationships? So friendships or siblings or family or acquaintances, that sort of thing?
Sophie Wohltjen: So what people do know is that the closer you are to a person, the longer your instances of eye contact are. People in relationships make eye contact for much longer periods of time than strangers. I think because there's this baseline connection that you already realize it's not as jarring to look into the soul of somebody that you already know. I think the question you might have been leading up to is would this be different if there were different types of relationships? And I'd certainly think that this would look different. So you synchronize up to the point of eye contact and then you can hold it for longer before the synchrony starts to decrease or something of that nature. But I certainly think we'd see something different in non- stranger conversations.
Kyla Sims: Maybe this isn't necessarily something that you've studied, but I'm really curious about the synchrony and the eye contact. Does it indicate any formation of a bond or connection beyond just that conversation?
Sophie Wohltjen: Yeah. So that is a really great question and I would love to be able to tell you that it does and that my participants became friends afterwards when they made more eye contact, but I wasn't able to actually measure that. Basically, it all came down to the way that Dartmouth's email system works.
Kyla Sims: That's funny.
Sophie Wohltjen: Yeah. So I thought about doing this and when you graduate from Dartmouth as an undergrad, your email gets removed 60 days after you graduate. It's very soon. I think a lot of institutions do something like five years or something like that, but Dartmouth is 60 days. So you can set up email forwarding for your account. Now, having graduated from Dartmouth recently, I can tell you that process is sort of convoluted. It's not just as simple as going into your email account and setting up mail forwarding. You have to go to some other website and do a whole thing. So a lot of my participants did not do that, so I could not get ahold of them to actually ask them these questions.
Kyla Sims: Our listeners are a lot of communications professionals who manage softwares like that. So I am sure they can appreciate how frustrating that is. And here is that communication snafus where you didn't even expect to find them.
Sophie Wohltjen: I know.
Kyla Sims: Over the last three years or so, we've spent a lot of time on Zoom, not making eye contact, but staring at each other and ourselves, how do you think this changes our interactions, our conversations or connections when we're talking through screens and technology rather than in person?
Sophie Wohltjen:So first of all, I think that there are a lot of clunky things about talking through screens. Eye contact is one of those things, but unlike this fancy recording software, concurrent streams are not necessarily recorded in Zoom. So talking over each other can create this really clunky, "You got... Oh, wait." And sometimes there's lag and there's just so many compounding layers of difficulty in a Zoom conversation. That being said, I think that humans are really adaptive at coming up with ways to connect with each other, even when you take some of the facilitators away. So eye contact is useful, and eye contact really helps in- person conversations. But I think that there are so many different ways that we actually glean what somebody is thinking or feeling about what we're saying that we don't necessarily need it.
While I think it can help to create a really deep connection sometimes, I think that in the absence of it, we can rely on other cues. For example, sometimes I work from home just during the day when I don't have to be running participants or be in the lab for any reason and I'll be on Zoom calls and my partner always laughs at me when he sees me on these Zoom calls because he says I am five times as expressive on a Zoom call. My back is super straight and I'm responding hugely with my face. And actually, it's true that after a very long Zoom call, I will come off of it and be like, " Wow, I have a headache." Just because I've just been holding my face so much. So I think people are compensating with maybe extra facial expression or perhaps more inflection in the voice, things like that to allow for communication to still be connective and come through to the other person.
Kyla Sims: So, that's the science behind eye contact and what it can tell us about our level of engagement with another person. Looking into each other's eyes is not a clear path to falling in love or making a connection, it's really more about knowing how we are being received. A lot can be missed in that reception when it's delivered digitally. FaceTime used to mean an in- person conversation. In the room once referred to the importance of having a seat at the table where decisions were being made. Being there live in person used to mean something. And according to our next guest, a veteran remote worker, it still does.
You're listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staffbase where we dive into the deeper conversations happening behind some of the biggest comms problems and puzzles that impact organizations and beyond. If you're enjoying the show so far, make sure you follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. And also, pretty please leave us a review and let us know what you think. You can also check out the show on our website by going to infernalcommunication.com.
Today's episode is called Get a Room, and we're looking at the power of sharing physical space with your collaborators and what gets lost as we increasingly communicate through technology. We just heard from Sophie Wohltjen, a psychologist who studies the science behind eye contact and we're going to revisit that conversation. But first, I'd like to introduce someone who was working remotely decades before it was cool. About 30 years ago, way before Zoom, before webcams, before Gmail, before Slack, before smartphones and FaceTime, Jennifer Britton was working remotely.
Jennifer Britton: So if you can picture this, the first organization I worked with, we worked in a country that, in those days, took five days to traverse. Getting to those communities could entail anything from a trip on the back of an army truck to doing some horseback riding, some dugout canoes, et cetera. So our connection in those days, this was pre- internet, this is in a country that was not yet fully mapped. GPS was really not prevalent. Our connection was on those long- range radios.
Kyla Sims: We're talking remote.
Jennifer Britton: One of the first things they had to do as they traveled into the interior of this country was to set that up because for health and safety reasons, we had three times a day what they would call sit reps, which is an old army term for situation reports that was the lifeline for people to check in, share whatever they needed, whether it was logistical needs, whether it was health needs, whether it was, " We need a message sent to A, B, C ministry in the capital." So that's how I cut my teeth on remote and hybrid work.
Kyla Sims: So, a bit more extreme than dialing in from the café or co- working space. Since then, Jennifer founded Potentials Realized, which offers coaching, training, and consulting services. She's also the author of Effective Virtual Conversations: A Guide for Working Remotely Effectively.
Jennifer Britton: It was a good seller until 2020 and then everyone realized, " Wow, we've got to figure out how to do this thing. We've got to be able to have a virtual conversation."
Kyla Sims: So now that these virtual conversations are the norm, what do you think is the best way to manage?
Jennifer Britton: I'll ask the little questions like, "Can you help me or help us understand what's happening outside your office window right now?" These are things that you would never think to ask, but my world is not your world. So if we're really communicating at any time, we need to understand what are we communicating around? What is the pace? What is the rhythm?
Kyla Sims: Your colleague might be in a room full of sick family members sniffling just off- screen, or they may be really lonely. There's no way to know unless we make an effort to talk. Online, we get a much smaller window into each other's worlds. It takes more communication to get the bigger picture. And if someone sits in the same room with you all day, there's a lot more time to read the room, so to speak. Even Jennifer admits there's nothing like the real thing
Jennifer Britton: Teams do need face-to-face time. I think that was something I learned as the remote leader years and years and years ago. There was only so much we could do in whatever virtual domain. We needed that time to rub shoulders, even if it was only once a year.
Kyla Sims: So working from home takes discipline, flexibility, and some real- life face time, not the video app. I know for me, time in a room with my normally virtual coworkers is always eye- opening. Our regular listeners will know that I recently went to Germany where I met 800 of my staff- based colleagues in person for the first time. One of the people that I met was Temus.
Temus: My mother language is Turkish and English and German.
Kyla Sims: He speaks a bunch of different languages, but German is not his first language, though he works mostly in German. When we were at Staffbase camp together, he was telling me how when he communicates with his German colleagues, sometimes things do get lost in translation.
Temus: At one point, I just zoned away and they, " Yeah, sure, of course." But there are some cases that I really just don't understand.
Kyla Sims: And I noticed that when he was telling me the story, he was smirking. In our conversation, I watched his facial expressions change, a nudge here, a smile there, his eyebrows dancing at different inflection points. All of that would've been lost if I'd done this interview over Zoom and maybe I would have missed his meaning entirely. Being in person meant I could understand the humor.
Temus:I do fine. It's all right. I'm still here. I'm not fired. So I guess-
Kyla Sims: The humanness and the nuance in his story, which made it that much more rich and interesting. So let's go back to our conversation with Sophie. Sophie says this is exactly what she means when she's talking about non- verbal communication.
Sophie Wohltjen: Well, and that's a great example of a situation where the universal face- body cues can really help where you're not speaking to somebody who speaks in the type of way that you speak. So you need these extra cues, these extra layers to actually fully understand the content of what is in their intent and their meaning and what they're saying. I think one thing to take away from this, I think that the finding is really interesting. It sort of lends itself well to the ebb and flow of being constantly in lockstep with another person versus pulling back and being your own individual self and provides some evidence that, in fact, the best way to interact with another person is not just to just sync right up with them and remain that way for the entire conversation or the entire interaction because then you don't get anywhere.
Kyla Sims: Well, that all makes me feel better about conversations that I have because I often find myself, I'm listening, I'm listening, and then they say something interesting and then I'm like, "Ooh." And then I've kind of lost the plot for half a second and I'm like, " Wait, no, I'm very interested. I'm very engaged, but I just wasn't listening for a minute there. I was doing my own reflection." So that makes me feel better. I'm not just super narcissistic and just thinking about myself the whole the time, it's a normal thing.
Sophie Wohltjen: Very normal. We're all thinking about ourselves all the time. We can't help it.
Kyla Sims: Oh, Sophie, this was a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I know that our listeners are really going to take a lot from this conversation, so thank you.
Sophie Wohltjen: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was super fun.
Kyla Sims: So what did we discover today? Eye contact is important, but even when we have it, it's fleeting. And that's not a bad thing. There's not very many of us who would want long intense eye contact, especially with someone we work with. Real connections don't have to happen in person. We can establish creative working relationships online, but it does take a little more, more questions, more checking in, maybe bigger gestures, and more compassion because we don't really know what our colleagues are dealing with outside our limited view. A great example is Sam Seguin, this show's sound designer and audio editor.
Sam Seguin: Hi, Kyla.
Kyla Sims: We've never met each other in person. I don't know if he lumbers into a room or gracefully glides, and it doesn't matter. We stay in touch over four time zones through email and this recording program, Riverside. We laugh, we joke, and we get stuff done. It works. But as we learned today, even for experienced remote workers, some real- life face time, even once a year, can do wonders for our personal connectivity and connection. So, before you start accusing me of saying remote work is bad, I am definitely not.
Personally, I will be remote working for as long as they let me. But, I have to admit, creative collaboration is really difficult online. And when I can meet with my colleagues in person, it's like a creative fireworks fest. The number of problems we're able to solve and the wacky ideas we come up with are just not replicable online. So, if you're feeling disconnected from your collaborators, do what you can to really get together.
Dolly Parton: Kenny, this remote thing really isn't working for me. How about we get a room at my studio and work this song out in person?
Kenny Rogers: Yee-haw. That's a great idea. On my way, Dolly.
Kyla Sims: Today, our guests were psychologist, Sophie Wohltjen and Jennifer Britton, author, group coach, and expert remote worker. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Next episode, we'll be talking about every comms person's favorite topic, writing, how to do it, and how to do it well. I'll be asking Author and Yale professor, Verlyn Klinkenborg, several short questions about writing and you're not going to want to miss it.
Verlyn Klinkenborg: Everything's flexible, everything's adaptable, everything's adjustable. We can do all sorts of miraculous things. We're not in search of correctness.
Kyla Sims: Don't forget to hit follow on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows. And if you liked today's episode, please leave us a review. We would love to know what you think. Until then, thanks for listening.
Kyla is a writer, content creator, speaker and host of Infernal Communication.