If you want to make a good impression and gauge what a colleague actually thinks of you, should you meet in-person or over videoconference? This is the question the authors explored in their research. The answer largely depends on whether you’re feeling anxious about the social interaction. Most of us — even the most socially confident — have moments when we feel a bit more socially anxious than usual. In those cases, setting a meeting on Zoom might level out the playing field, allowing you to be as aware of your impression as someone who is feeling more secure. In brief, Zoom might give everyone an equal opportunity to adequately manage the impression they want to convey, which has important implications for both team leaders and their employees.
You just started a new job. You might be especially curious about your reputation around the office, and the impression you are making on your colleagues. Do people think you’re intelligent and friendly? Inevitably, we all care about the way we come across to others.
One reason we care so much about what people think of us is that it sets the basis for impression management. For example, if you realize that your new colleague thinks you are incompetent during your first project meeting, this gives you the opportunity to correct that misperception, which could be done by highlighting how your unique skillset is relevant to the project you’re working on together. Alternatively, if you miss that cue, you might not be able to manage their impression of you, and before you know it, your reputation in the workplace might crystallize. In short, knowing the impressions we make on others is a key step in smoothly navigating our professional and social interactions.
Now that we’re in a hybrid world, these interactions might be just as likely to take place over videoconference as they are in-person, and you might have the leeway to choose whether to meet virtually or face-to-face with a colleague. So, here are the questions we set out to answer with our research: If you want to gauge what a new colleague really thinks of you, which should you choose? Are you a better impression manager in-person or on Zoom?
In our research, we tested which of these two assumptions prevailed. To do so, we had 305 people come into our lab before the Covid-19 pandemic (in groups of four to eight) and 555 people join a Zoom session during the pandemic (again, in small groups of three to nine). People would meet one on one with new people for a couple of minutes, just like at a speed-networking event. This resulted in a total of 1,683 unique in-person interactions and 3,068 unique Zoom interactions.
After each meeting, they reported on how they perceived each other’s personalities. For example, they would be asked: “To what extent do you see this person as intelligent?” Importantly, we also asked them to rate how they think their interaction partner perceived them: “Does this person think I’m intelligent?”
It turns out that people are good at knowing how they come across to others after just a two-minute interaction. Importantly, they are equally accurate about the first impression they make on Zoom as in-person. In both contexts, people could tell if their peer saw them as very intelligent and not so friendly. Put differently, our research suggests that people are able to know how they come across to a peer or a new acquaintance on Zoom to the same extent as in-person. In other words, interacting on Zoom does not seem to interfere with people’s ability to know their reputations.
What’s more, knowing the impression you make on Zoom related to being liked more by others, as it does in-person. In other words, knowing how you’re coming across to someone else was equally socially beneficial in Zoom interactions as it was in-person. So, knowing others’ impressions of us on Zoom seems to operate in the same way and carry the same benefits as it does in-person.
All in all, what does this mean for your next interaction with your new colleagues? Should you think twice before deciding to meet them on Zoom? Contrary to some of our lay beliefs, at least when it comes to impression management, the decision to videoconference (vs. meet in-person) might not bear dramatic consequences for most people. But is this true for everyone?
Research shows that people who feel more socially anxious feel more comfortable online than in person. By being more comfortable, they might be less worried and better able to gauge how they are coming across over Zoom. In fact, in our in-person events, more socially anxious people were less aware of the impression they made (compared to more secure people). But on Zoom, this disadvantage disappeared: Both the more and less anxious people were equally aware of the impressions they made on others.
But does this mean that Zoom helps the socially anxious and hurts the secure? It seems that it’s a mix of both. Zoom appeared to give a little boost to the socially anxious, allowing them to know how they were coming across, perhaps because they were more comfortable on Zoom or because they could monitor themselves with the self-view feature. But at the same time, Zoom hindered more secure people’s ability to detect how they came across. Perhaps having the self-view feature made them feel self-conscious, which could have been distracting.
Coming back to our main question: Should you plan your next meeting on Zoom or in-person if you want to gauge what a colleague actually thinks of you? The answer to this question largely comes down to how you’re feeling about the interaction and whether you’re feeling anxious about it. Most of us — even the most socially confident — have moments when we feel a bit more socially anxious than usual. In those cases, setting a meeting on Zoom might level out the playing field, allowing you to be as aware of your impression as someone who is feeling more secure. In brief, Zoom might give everyone an equal opportunity to adequately manage the impression they want to convey. This has important implications for both team leaders and their employees.
If team leaders are aware that some team members might be feeling more socially anxious, maybe due to a specific context or personality style, it might be helpful to schedule a videoconference call instead of an in-person meeting.
This is not to say that the long-term solution is to avoid in-person interactions. However, while working up the social confidence to more smoothly navigate face-to-face meetings, more socially anxious people might benefit from using Zoom once in a while — especially for first impressions.
Employees can now feel more at ease knowing that videoconferencing does not hurt their impression management abilities. This means that instead of spending energy worrying about whether people “get them” on Zoom, they can focus more on the content of the meeting and actively engage with the team’s ideas — and in that way, ultimately make a better impression.
Overall then, especially if you are feeling more socially anxious, Zooming once in a while might just be the nudge you need to get back some control over your reputation around the office.