I’ve been asked a few times lately about the benefits of face-to-face versus online work with clients, and also whether it’s better to require clients to have their video cameras turned on when working online. Most people instinctively seem to prefer working with clients in person, and if working online, prefer everyone to have their cameras turned on. Some people are highly uncomfortable working by phone, whereas others actually prefer it! When we unpack the pros and cons of each format in various circumstances, the answer as to which is best, as with almost everything, is “it depends”. It’s important to consider factors like the nature of the dispute, the participants’ preferences, and logistical considerations.
I think at the outset we need to acknowledge that different participants will have different preferences, for varying reasons. It’s also important that practitioners don’t assume that everyone else will have the same preferences, and that practitioners do not simply impose their own preferences on clients without good reasons! It’s worth critically reflecting on whether there are other equally effective (or even better) ways to do things.
Let’s consider some of the factors that might change according to which means of communication we use.
The logistics may be more difficult – it may take more time to arrange in person meetings, participants have to spend time and effort in getting to the venue. In person service provision may cost more. It can be expensive to organise venue hire and travel costs. In some cases logistics may make it impossible to conduct a session with everyone physically present in the same location. However, the same challenges may arise when not everyone involved has access to the required technology (e.g. computer, internet, telephone), so cannot participate in this way.
With in-person service provision, everyone can see who is in the room, and so this can prevent any privacy issues. When people are participating online or by phone, we have to trust that they are telling the truth when they say that nobody else is present and listening to the discussion.
There may be safety concerns with participants being in close physical proximity in the same room. However, there are also potential safety concerns when people are not in the same room. For example, if someone becomes very distressed and may need immediate support, but we are not nearby, it can be difficult to assist them in the moment.
Some people do not feel safe in the physical presence of others, or even in the visual presence of others. Working online without cameras on, or by telephone, can provide a buffer for people to communicate more confidently.
Observation of each other’s behaviours
When people are in the room together, assuming that everyone has the same visual and hearing abilities, each person can observe more of each other’s behaviours. This is useful for identifying others’ emotions, as well as observing people’s responses to others’ comments and noticing things like whether they are paying attention or distracted.
When in the same room together, people can perceive things with peripheral vision and can hear utterances that occur simultaneously in a way that doesn’t happen online. When we are online (and more so if cameras are off) or by telephone, there are fewer opportunities to observe nuanced behaviours (e.g. fist clenching, eye rolling, foot tapping).
However, many practitioners report that when they have no visual, their auditory senses are improved and so they are more sensitive to tonal and other variations that provide useful cues. I know some very highly respected coaches who prefer to coach by phone without the visual distraction.
Working with emotions
One reason many practitioners give for preferring in person sessions, or at least having video cameras on when working online, is that seeing people’s faces is important to identify what emotions they are experiencing. However, based on recent research, being able to see a person’s face doesn’t assist much in perceiving their emotions, so long as you can hear their voice. Studies on empathic accuracy (how accurate we are in perceiving what someone else is feeling) have shown that accuracy only drops from an average of 34.1% to 32.7% when the visual is removed.
However, this research only applies to the situation in which we are attempting to identify the emotions of the person speaking. If we wish to identify the emotions of someone who is not currently speaking (e.g. a person’s reaction to what someone else is saying) we do need video to be able to do this (unless they respond in some audible way that gives us an idea of their emotions, such as sighing).
Also empathic accuracy overall tends to be higher the more cues that we have available to us. There are more cues in a face-to-face environment, when we can also observe body language and behaviour, others’ responses, and context.
Emotional contagion is also more likely when people are in the same room. This could be a benefit (fostering understanding and empathy) but could also be a detriment (for example, transference or spreading a bad mood between participants).
There are also differences in opportunities for emotional regulation, depending on which format we use. For example, when working online, participants can be in a space of their choosing, ensuring that their environment maximises their chances of emotional regulation and ability to engage constructively. This may be particularly important for neurodivergent clients and people who have experienced trauma. However, interpersonal and co-regulation of emotions tends to be more effective in person, when we can influence others emotions more directly.
Comfort and control
The person who is most familiar with the venue is likely to have more control over the environment and be more comfortable in the space. Usually this tends to be the practitioner (assuming that they are using their own consultancy rooms, or a room that they have hired for the purpose). However, sometimes clients (e.g. when working for an organisation) provide a venue, and in this case the clients may be more familiar with the environment than the practitioner. It’s important to note that sometimes this will work the other way (e.g. clients may not be comfortable having a mediation at their place of work, and would feel more comfortable at a neutral venue).
Not everyone may be comfortable in the chosen venue for various reasons. These might be pragmatic such as the convenience of the location or the aesthetics of the room. However, certain people will have more personal responses to aspects of a venue. For example clients who are neurodivergent or who have experienced trauma may find certain attributes of a venue (types of furnishing, lighting, background noise, etc.) interfere with their capacity to participate effectively.
Some neurodivergent clients prefer to work by phone or with cameras off as a way of reducing distracting stimulus. Some clients prefer the anonymity that a non-visual format provides. Others find working by phone convenient as they can talk from any location that suits them, including while walking.
One of the benefits of working online is that participants can choose to have their video cameras on or off at different times in the process. This allows them, for example, to turn off their videos when they are feeling particularly stressed or vulnerable, but still remain engaged, and potentially to turn videos back on again at a later time if they are comfortable to do so.
If someone becomes distressed during service provision, the practitioner can immediately support the client and respond more directly when they are physically in the same room. Limited scope to support a client who is very distressed when not physically nearby.
Similarly, managing challenging behaviours can sometimes be easier when people are all in the room together. For example, a practitioner can use presence and body language to influence people’s behaviour (which can allow more versatility than just putting a person on mute or disconnecting them from the call).
Trust and rapport
Some people believe that it’s harder to build trust and rapport online or by phone, compared with in person. For example, they like to look the person in the eyes and shake their hands to make a real human connection. However, this is not the case for everyone, and many people (particularly the younger generations) are used to building rapport and trust in online environments.
When participants meet in person, practitioners don’t have to worry about technical issues (such as internet dropping out) interrupting the session. There is also no inequity in relation to access to / comfort with technology. However, it is important to recognise that there may be other challenges for parties with different abilities (for example people with visual or hearing impairments, neurodivergent clients, clients who have experienced trauma) during in-person service provision.
Interactive collaboration opportunities
When everyone is physically in the same room, this can provide the opportunity to collectively work on and use visual aids and artefacts (e.g. physically passing things around, adding to a white board together, using gestures to demonstrate something). However, with quickly developing technology, there are often now ways to do some of these things in an online environment (e.g. using avatars in virtual worlds or online whiteboards).
Flow of communication
Communication can flow very different in person compared with online. For example, in person conversations can flow naturally (e.g. people can talk over the top of one another, stop, restart) and we are used to this kind of ebb and flow. In online platforms such as zoom only one person can be heard speaking at a time, and there can often be unnatural delays in between people speaking.
This can sometimes be a benefit, however, in that technology can support more structured communication and turn-taking. Online platforms often allow participants to communicate in writing, which can provide a more deliberate and less emotionally charged way to express thoughts and feelings. Technology can also provide flexibility in using a variety of ways to engage at different times (microphone on/off, camera on/off, speak or chat).
1. What are the benefits and downsides of each option?
2. In which situations might those pros and cons change?
3. What might be some of the ways to minimise the impact of the downsides?
4. Who benefits / loses out from each option?
5. Who gets to choose?