Zoom fatigue: Is it time meetings changed forever?

Sep 30, 2020

Zoom fatigue: Is it time meetings changed forever?

Freezing screens. Someone’s weird echo. A dozen eyes staring. Daily meetings, one-on-one meetings, and then, when you’re finally done with your workday, virtual calls with friends and family.

Since the devastating Coronavirus reached our shores, we’ve spent a lot of time on video calls. For most more than have ever before – and many are beginning to finding it exhausting.

But how does this affect us precisely? The BBC interviewed Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor for Insead, who explores the sustainable learning and development in the workplace, and Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness, to hear their views.


Is there really a difference?


Video calls require more focus than a face-to-face chat, says Petriglieri. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.

Focused Silence is another challenge, he adds. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about technology.” It also makes people uncomfortable. One 2014 study by German academics showed that delays on calls as quick as 1.2 seconds saw people perceive the responder as less friendly.

An added factor, says Shuffler, is that if we are physically on camera, we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” It’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen, or not to be conscious of how they behave in front of the camera.


How are the current circumstances contributing?


Petriglieri believes that because we may feel forced into these calls being a contributory factor. “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together,” he says. “What I’m finding is, we’re all exhausted; It doesn’t matter whether they are introverts or extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic.”

Then there’s the fact that aspects of our lives that used to be separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects – context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities, and goals – and we find the variety healthy, says Petriglieri. When these aspects are reduced, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings.

Shuffler says a lack of downtime after we’ve fulfilled work and family commitments may be another factor in our tiredness, while some of us may be putting higher expectations on ourselves due to worries over the economy, furloughs, and job losses. “There’s also that heightened sense of ‘I need to be performing at my top level in a situation’… Some of us are kind of over-performing to secure our jobs.”


So how can we alleviate Zoom fatigue?


Both experts suggested that our limiting video calls to only those that are necessary. Turning on cameras should be optional and in general, there should be more of an understanding that cameras do not always have to be on throughout your meetings. Having your screen to the side, instead of straight ahead, could help your concentration, particularly in group meetings, says Petriglieri. It makes you feel like you’re in an adjoining room, so maybe less tiring.

In some cases, it’s worth considering if video chats are necessary at all.  Shuffler suggests shared files with notes may be a better option that avoids an information overload. Shuffler also suggests taking time during meetings to catch up before diving into business. “Spend some time to actually check into people’s wellbeing,” she urges. “It’s a way to reconnect us with the world, and to maintain trust and reduce fatigue and concern.”

Build transition periods in between video meetings can help refresh us – stretch, have a drink or do some exercise, our experts say. Boundaries and transitions are important; we need to create blockers that allow us to put one identity aside and then go to another as we move between work and private personas.

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