Zoom calls are something everyone has become familiar with especially during the pandemic. Whether its a virtual birthday party, long-distance family game night or just the classic 9 am work meeting - Zoom has become a more consistent part of our daily lives. It has allowed companies to keep operating, families to stay connected, and the world to shift the way we once viewed work structures. Amidst all the positives, Zoom and other virtual communication platforms have their negatives. Professor Jeremy Bailenson with the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab conducted a study analyzing the ways in which these meetings may be burning us out. He has reduced these feelings of exhaustion into four identifiable categories and ways to help ease the effects, coining the term: Zoom Fatigue.
Social Distance from the Screen
When the majority of “face to face” human contact starts occurring through screens, we are experiencing some subconscious effects. The normal meeting dynamic of the presenter holding the attention is shifted as everyone now has direct eye contact with all of the participants of the meeting. While this not only shifts the dynamics of the meeting, Bailenson includes the rise in emotional turmoil for those who experience social anxieties. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” and when individuals are put in an environment where “everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.” This could go as far as to affect one’s performance, and definitely add a level of stress that would otherwise be avoided in the traditional workplace meeting. Bailenson refers to this as a “hyper-aroused state” as you are also experiencing other individuals' faces at a size that the brain acknowledges as an intense situation. The intensity for long periods of time can contribute to Zoom Fatigue, which Stanford recommends combatting with:
- Taking Zoom and other virtual communication platforms out of full-screen when in use. This can help control the image and reduce the intensity.
- Try using an external keyboard to help create excess space between you and the screen, in comparison to using the keyboard that is attached to the laptop.
Face-time leads to Fatigue
While the amount of face time with others can cause fatigue, we are also experiencing an increased amount of time looking at our own faces. In our ordinary lives, we rarely ever spend hours a day looking at a reflection of ourselves, analyzing our body language and mannerisms - that is not a normal human experience. Humans can be relatively critical, especially of themselves, and viewing yourself through a Zoom screen is like living under a constant microscope. This can be quite draining, and add a level of emotional stress - lowering one’s confidence. These effects can begin to develop an association between anxiety and meetings, which potentially creates a less positive performance from the lack of confidence. While the most ideal solution would be to have the platforms change the way in which they display the meeting room, users can take initiative and manually hide their own self from view. This detracts from the attention and criticism they put on themselves and opens the opportunity for a company to have more productive meetings where the attention is directed in a healthier, more appropriate way.
The New 6 Feet of Space
Whether it’s a conversation at the office or connecting over a phone call, people have the flexibility to move around and express themselves through physical motion. When individuals are required to sit in front of a screen through a visual environment, this opportunity for movement is greatly limited. Research has shown that sitting for long periods of time is not healthy, and that movement is essential for improving cognizability. For people like me who tend to have a difficult time remaining still and engaged during meetings, I feel this is an area where I can most clearly recognize my Zoom Fatigue. I don’t feel at my best when sitting for long periods of time, or being limited to small places of movement. I find an outlet in my movement, or even something as small as being able to take notes or make small doodles as I follow along a presentation. A way to help ease this challenge is to:
- Make a point to engage in physical activity when not in meetings. Whether it be a quick 10 minute stretch or a walk on your lunch break, make time and be intentional with giving yourself the opportunity.
- Try adding an external camera to increase the distance between you and the monitor, giving slightly more room for comfortable movement.
- Another option is to break against the norm of turning off cameras during meetings, and instead establish times when turning off the camera is acceptable and appropriate.
- Managers can help combat this issue by reducing meeting times, and the amount of meetings that take place throughout the week.
Non-verbal Communication Fatigue
A large portion of effective communication is non-verbal, when engaging in conversations we are constantly picking up on body language cues. When the in-person, physical element is removed along with audio and video delays, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to identify cues and communication. The way in which we communicate becomes a little unnatural, as we over exaggerate to better understand others, as well as the ways in which we send and receive communication. This includes holding “thumbs up” or “overexaggerated head nods'' which is not a typical or perceived natural behavior in a physical work environment. The lack of physical human interaction can potentially limit our social skills and create some social anxieties, weakening communication further. Bailenson recommends giving an “audio break” which includes turning off the camera and microphone when not presenting, and stepping away from the camera for a few minutes to give the opportunity to ground yourself in your environment, and not become overwhelmed with the virtual world.
While we all consistently experience the positives of technology, we are also simultaneously experiencing the negatives. As we move forward as a virtual community, it is important to combat these challenges and be intentional in solutions. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven the shift to remote working to be the new normal, and the prioritization of combatting Zoom fatigue should become essential in creating a healthy work environment.
For more information about this topic, check out this resource from Stanford University. https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/.