Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to adapt to a new normal we’ve spent more time videoconferencing than ever before. Zoom or Teams meetings with colleagues, House Party hangouts with friends, FaceTime with the family… we’ve done it all. What has taken us by surprise is that despite the fact that video calls can happen without us ever leaving the sofa or changing out of our pyjamas, there is a special kind of tiredness after a day spent in the company of giant heads staring at us up close for long periods of time.
Less non-verbal communication
As people, we have a limited working memory which means our brains can only do so many things consciously at once. In contrast, we can process much more information unconsciously, as we do with body language and other non-verbal signals such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, gestures, and postures. In face-to-face meetings, we process these cues largely automatically, and can still listen to the speaker at the same time.
With many non-verbal cues missing during video meetings, we need to work harder and pay more attention to read people. We also feel like we have to make more emotional effort to appear interested. In short, relying predominantly on words and sustained eye contact to infer emotions can be draining.
What if the kids run in?
Many people working from home worry about interruptions that might make them look bad to their colleagues. Maybe the room is a bit of a mess and they are worried about the virtual background failing, or the kids are playing next door and might run in any minute… or maybe they watched Trinny Woodwall’s live stream when her partner walked naked across the room.
Absence of transitions
In person, we often meet people on the way to a meeting to catch up on issues or discuss our views before going in. We get tea or coffee, and the simple act of relocation to a different room is energizing. In contrast, at home, we might be working on a task and then go into a video meeting without taking a short break. That can make it difficult to shift our focus and attention to the topic of the meeting.
Furthermore, we’ve all been guilty of booking video calls one after the other without a break in between. This leads to the same exhaustion that we would get if we had meetings in person back-to-back without a break.
Do I really look like that?
Being presented with the reality of our own faces while you talking to others is deeply absorbing and distracting. It makes us hyperaware of how we’re coming across. “Is that what I really look like?” “Do I move my head like that all the time?” That’s a layer of self-consciousness that we don’t have when we’re in a conversation face-to-face.
Are you still there?
Silence is important in face-to-face conversations because it creates a natural rhythm, gives us space to think and allows the other person to talk. In video calls, even a 1.2-second delay in responding online can make us perceive the person talking as less friendly and focused. Often, if people are silent we think they’ve frozen or dropped out of the call. That gives us a sense that the connection is very fragile, and being in fragile relationships in any context is more anxiety-provoking than we realise.
On the upside…
On the upside, video meetings are a welcome respite for people who suffer from social anxiety.
Moreover, even though the increased focus on verbal information can be more mentally draining, it might also have some positive side effects by reducing biases caused by social and emotional signals. For example, some physical factors, such as height, are linked to social dominance. These factors are less apparent in video meetings, which could lead to increased emphasis on the merits of arguments.
How can we reduce Zoom fatigue?
With predictions that the ‘new normal’ will be very different from the old one and more than 35% of UK employees looking to continue working from home two to three days a week, it seems that video meetings are here to stay. There are a number of steps we can take to reduce the fatigue caused by them.
When you are organising a videoconference, make sure that you’re deliberate. That’s the kind of thinking that should be applied to all meetings really: Why are we meeting? How long are we meeting for? Who is in that meeting and why are they there? What do we need to do to prepare so that it feels we are doing something purposeful? The clearer that task is, the easier and more productive the meeting will be.
Build in breaks
Take mini-breaks from video during longer calls by minimizing the window or looking away from your computer completely for a few seconds now and then. Your colleagues will understand more than you think – it is possible to listen without staring at the screen for a full thirty minutes. This is not an invitation to start doing something else, but to let your eyes rest for a moment. If you are on an hour-long video call, consider making it okay for people to turn off their cameras for parts of the call. For example, during a presentation, only the speaker can have their camera on.
Take care of your body and mind
Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings. Take a break from the screen between video calls and get fresh air. Make sure you are moving and drinking enough water. For days when you can’t avoid back-to-back calls, consider making meetings 25 or 50 minutes instead of the standard half-hour or hour to give yourself a bit of time in between to get up and move for a bit.
Stop staring at your face
To avoid the distracting tendency of self-consciously staring at your own face (which we are all guilty of) simply hide yourself from view.
Silence is okay
At the beginning of the meeting agree with everyone that silence and pauses to think are okay and that you don’t have to fill the space with words.
Switch to phone calls or email
Check your calendar for the next few days to see if there are any conversations you could have over Slack or email instead. If 4 PM rolls around and you are Zoomed-out but have an upcoming one-on-one, ask the person to switch to a phone call. Most likely they’d welcome the idea. Moreover, sometimes the phone is better because we only have to concentrate on one voice and can walk around which can help thinking and creativity.
Avoid defaulting to video for external calls
Many people now feel a tendency to treat video as the default for all communications. In situations when you are speaking to people outside of your company – conversations for which you used to rely on phone calls – you may feel obliged to send a Zoom link instead. But a video call is fairly intimate and can even feel invasive in some situations, especially if you don’t already know the person.