Stop With the Video Chats Already. Just Make a Voice Call.
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Stop With the Video Chats Already. Just Make a Voice Call.

Research shows frequent videoconferences can sap your brain and deplete your energy.

By JOANNA STERN
Fri, May 28, 2021 11:13amGrey Clock 4 min

Dear colleague and/or friend:

I’d love to do a call about this. And by “call” I mean absolutely NOT a video call. Let’s do a call-call. You know, those old things where we just hear each other’s beautiful voices. Whatever you do, don’t touch that webcam.

Looking forward to (audio) chatting,

Joanna

The time has come to be bold: Stop the nonstop video calling.

Allow me to remind you of the BPE (you know, the Before-Pandemic Era), a time long ago when every call didn’t require colour-coding your bookshelf background, firing up the webcam and staring into a human tic-tac-toe board for hours on end. Video calls used to be a rare treat. Now, they’re everyday soul suckers.

Really. There’s vampirical—I mean, empirical—proof. A high frequency of video calling can cause general, social, emotional, visual and motivational fatigue, researchers at the University of Gothenburg and Stanford University found in a recent study. Even Zoom’s chief executive, Eric Yuan, says he suffers from the dreaded “Zoom Fatigue.”

Look, I’m not saying all video calling must stop. I love video calling. Instantly see and hear people with little to no delay? It’s miraculous. My mom, who is hearing-impaired, struggled throughout my childhood to hear me on the phone. Now, she can see my son wherever she is, and the visual cues help her tremendously.

I’m just saying audio calls can be more productive—and they can sound better than ever.

But how do you know when to pick voice over video? And how do you make it happen without being the meeting jerk who just refuses to turn on the camera? After talking to researchers and technologists—and cutting back on my own video calls—I present you with five steps to regain your sanity.

Step 1: Ask, should this meeting just be an email?

Fact: There are too many meetings. So I beg of you, before deciding on the technological format, simply ask: Do we really need to meet at all?

Step 2: Understand the benefits of audio vs. video

Géraldine Fauville, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and the lead researcher on that aforementioned study, mapped out the main reasons video can be so cognitively draining:

• It’s a lot of looking at ourselves, which is unnatural and comes with self-evaluation and scrutiny. Called the mirror effect, this can be particularly intense for women. You can combat this with the self-hide option available in Zoom and Google Meet. Google has just added a number of features to address this specifically. Microsoft Teams’ new Together Mode was built to combat this, too.

• It’s a lot of close-up eye contact. In fact, the brain processes that sort of invasion of space as if it should lead to mating or fighting.

• It’s a lot of sitting and feeling trapped. You can’t get up and walk around during a video call.

• It’s a lot of nodding. “For you to communicate cues to the participant, you need to intensify the cues,” Dr. Fauville said. “So people nod more vigorously than if they were in the same room.”

No wonder we’re exhausted. So yes, limiting the number and length of video calls seems like the obvious answer. And as some of us kick-start the hybrid work life, that will happen naturally.

But voice calls aren’t just table scraps from our work-from-home buffet. They allow you to focus on what’s being said and give you real respite from the screen. I now do my weekly call with my boss on the phone. We reserve video for deeper conversations, like performance reviews.

I also still like to do video calls with colleagues I haven’t caught up with for a while, or for important meetings where reading facial expressions is crucial.

Step 3: Be clear it’s an audio call

You’ve decided that voice is the way to go for a call, now you’ve got to convey that to others.

Don’t waste precious meeting time having an awkward convo about this; be straight up before the call. “Hey, I’d like to do voice—no video—for this call. Work for you?” You can even put it on me: “I read this wonderful column in The Wall Street Journal about how too many video calls are bad.”

In a survey of employees, the University of California, Berkeley, found that 77% multitask during video calls. I called that out in a recent calendar invite: “Let’s do voice-only for this one,” I wrote to my colleagues. “We’re all going to cover each other’s faces with other windows on the screen anyway!” (Yep, we can see all of you, looking over at your second monitor!)

Step 4: Make the call

Even though I made my voice-call preferences known to my colleagues, I’m not just reaching for my phone. In fact, I’ve used all the big videoconferencing services—sans video. Zoom, Google Meet, Slack, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger all produce stable and clear calls if you have a good connection. Most sound better than cellular—especially if you have a good mic. But the best choice is however you can most easily reach your contact.

Slack has become my go-to for work. Since most of the folks already are there all day, it’s great for mimicking the quick desk drop-by. Hit the phone button and it automatically defaults to a voice call. (To add video, you have to tap the video icon.) With Slack audio use surging in the past year, the company has been piloting new group-audio features, an office variation of Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

Slack is also looking at ways to improve audio quality and make it easier to switch between desktop and mobile calls, Ali Rayl, the company’s vice president of product and customer experience, told me.

Call-quality-wise, FaceTime audio consistently sounds the best to me. I often talk to my editor via Apple’s service and he sounds crystal clear. The downside? Apple devices only.

Step 5: Try no-video days

“The responsibility of limiting Zoom fatigue is not just on the individuals,” Dr. Fauville told me. “We hope our findings inspire companies to rethink videoconferencing.”

So far, so good. Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser has started “Zoom-free Fridays,” a day free of internal video calls. The University of California, Berkeley, for the past year, has said no recurring meetings—of any kind—on Friday afternoons.

You may want to try a similar policy. Or at the very least start perfecting those extremely polite “You don’t want to see my face and I don’t want to see your face” emails.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 26, 2021.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”