What is Zoom fatigue and how did we get here?
The pandemic-enforced remote work supercharged the adoption of video conferencing as a means to keep businesses running and to bring social connectedness to the new normal. As the global workforce grappled to bring structure and sense to the world of remote work, companies and teams rushed to adopt virtual meeting tools to fill the gaps caused by the phenomenon of social distancing. In the business world, the workforce made a remarkably successful transition to not just communicating and collaborating using video tools, but also expanding the purview of the tools to conduct global seminars and conferences, geographically distributed customer-outreach calls, learning and development courses, and even company happy hours.
Slowly, zoom became an integral verb in our daily lives, so much so, that Zoom reported over 300 million meeting participants in April 2020 – a thirty-fold increase from the 10 million daily users in December 2019. Other platforms such as Google Meet and Microsoft Teams reported similarly skyrocketing usage at 100 million and 75 million participants each. With the increasing usage of virtual communication, the psychological ill-effects became acute and more prevalent. More and more employees were complaining of tiredness, distress, and burnout after a daily slew of virtual calls until the world acknowledged the affliction as “Zoom Fatigue” – a feeling of exhaustion from participating in video conference calls.
Zoom fatigue – A definition
“Zoom fatigue or, more generally,Virtual meeting fatigue, one of the many terms born out of the Covid-19 pandemic, describes the anxiety, exhaustion, or worry resulting from the overuse of virtual communication platforms. The challenge is becoming more prevalent and acute as we engage in countless video meetings as part of our regular work lives.
Why does Zoom Fatigue happen?
The exhaustion of virtual conferencing is caused by more than the obvious reason of having to participate in a number of calls. One possible explanation that amplified this problem of fatigue is the underlying socio-economic chaos caused by the pandemic. Thrust into a health and employment uncertainty, most workers carried a constant predisposition to stress which expressed as digital fatigue.
A deeper study of the fatigue has led to a nuanced understanding of our bio-psycho-social response to the disruption caused to our synchronous and instinct-driven methods of communication. Human communication has evolved to process a labyrinth of real-time gestures, social cues, and non-verbal signals. Video communication disadvantages us by removing this interplay of behavioral dynamics, creating a neuro-psychological burden that tires us. In a video meeting, participants are constantly processing multiple data points – the speaker, the chat box on the side, the shifting position of multiple faces, the attentiveness to know when and how much to speak; not to mention the time-lags in audio and the effort to stare at the camera. All these seemingly minor issues snowball into a larger disconcerting cause of cognitive burden.
In more recent developments, in February 2021, Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), published his peer-reviewed research detailing four psychological causes of video conferencing fatigue:
The unnatural amount of close-up eye contact
In a physical meeting space, we’re allowed a wide range of visual stimuli – the speaker, the elements in our ambiance, our notebooks, or our wristwatches. In the virtual world, however, in order to show that we are engaged participants, we tend to pay attention to the screen all the time. There is also the case where, depending on the size of our monitors, the faces on our screen might be too close for comfort. All these visual stressors signal an intense situational response in our brains, causing us to be in a hyper-vigilant state during the duration of the video conference.
The awareness of our reflection
Watching ourselves on-screen is stressful. Our natural response to this reflection is usually critical, and over the course of a video call, we become hyper-aware of not just our reflections, but also our expressions and behaviors during an interaction – almost akin to having a mirror in front of us all day. This causes a cascading consequence of negative emotions.
The lack of mobility
Being bound to our seats during calls severely reduces our physical mobility. This lack of movement causes a huge stress on our cognitive abilities.
As social beings that adopt a symphony of non-verbal communication techniques, our brains are tuned to process data from multiple verbal, body language, and social cues. A video conference, however, removes these advantages and forces us to be focused on exaggerated responses and mindful communication. This cognitive load causes our brains to consume more energy that can lead to exhaustion.
Understanding the wide array of causes of virtual meeting fatigue can help managers, leaders, and workers to be mindful of stressors to preempt and manage this endemic challenge.
Signs and Symptoms to watch for
1. Multiple canceled or rescheduled meeting calls from a particular team member
2. A dip in productivity, particularly following a video meeting – a lack of collaboration, missing deadlines, low quality work output, etc., can all indicate fatigue.
3. A dip in team morale coupled with an overall sense of tiredness or unenthusiastic behavior is a sign to be mindful of.
4. Apathy to work, disengagement, or aggressive behaviors can also be an indication of underlying burnout.
Video conferencing fatigue, though prevalent, is a problem that is hard to pinpoint and combat. Managers and business leaders are now turning to creative methods of using data to identify and manage the issue.
Solutions for the long-term
A lot of the problems that have led up to the challenge of virtual meeting fatigue have primarily been because of the incorrect use of virtual meetings and not just because of their nature of being virtual. The evolution of the problem is understandable since the change to virtual meetings was sudden for most of us. The silver lining is that with the right guidelines and best practices for usage, a lot of these problems can be solved.
Zoom fatigue primarily stems from the need to work synchronously – wherein people communicate and collaborate in real time to get a job done. However, the flaw in such sync work is that in almost all cases, the work could have been done, maybe even more effectively, if it were worked on asynchronously, without the participants being present over a virtual meeting. Async work alleviates the pressures and pitfalls of many remote work concerns by equipping the workforce to work at a time, pace, and routine of their own. This allows boosted productivity, enhanced outcomes, and significantly lower levels of stress, burnout, and fatigue.
A promising solution to combating many workplace issues, including combating zoom fatigue, has been the creative use of workplace data and analytics. Team managers, business leaders, and knowledge workers are increasingly taking stock of their workplace tool usage data to find patterns of workflows that can indicate potential threats to productivity.
For example, analytics of the digital exhaust from Zoom can indicate to managers which of their employees was burdened with too many calls in a particular time frame. Correlation algorithms can provide insights into how these calls – their volume, duration, or results impacted an employee’s well-being. Equipped with this data, managers can strategize workflows to distribute workloads amongst their team members, plan call volumes and durations to enable a sense of balance, and develop communication and collaboration strategies that help people perform productively while also managing their well-being.
Solutions to adopt today
The pressing nature of this challenge needs an immediate and stop-gap solution. Here are some tried and tested ways to help your teams cope with the issue now:
Say okay to no-video calls
As research has shown, the visual stimuli of virtual meetings play a substantial role in causing exhaustion. An easy first step to adopt is allowing your teams to opt for audio-only calls. Removing the pressure to keep videos on can help many employees to find personal space and contribute to discussions without worrying about their expressions and on-screen mannerisms.
Context switching reduces productivity by up to 40%. Allow your teams enough time to accommodate virtual meetings within their delivery deadlines so they don’t feel forced to multitask during calls. Make space for feedback and conversation regarding workload, work styles, and deadlines that can be met without the stress of multitasking.
During long-drawn-out virtual meetings, be mindful of the clock. If your team needs to be involved in a meeting longer than 30 minutes, find opportune moments to suggest a coffee break. Lead by example in taking a short break to stretch or walk around (videos off, of course) and encourage that your teams take scheduled breathers.
Make virtual social events optional
As leaders navigate culture-building in the digital workplace, stay mindful of employees’ choices and changing preferences. Make company happy hours optional and facilitated with a moderator so participants can enjoy the outcome of social connectedness without feeling obligated to participate.
Reduce meeting volume and meeting durations
All meetings can be made shorter. And most communication can always be made asynchronous. Set a time limit and strive to meet it, time and time again. This will allow structured conversations and reduce the strain of being always-on.
Speaking about time, always strive to avoid after-work hour Zoom calls. Unless the team has burning issues like system outages, managers must promote quiet days where employees do not engage in work meetings after work hours. A robust async work practice can help managers facilitate quiet days that can help in reducing zoom fatigue, help employees disconnect and unplug from work, and improve employee experience.
Make agendas compulsory
A meeting convener needs to know what the purpose of a meeting is so that she can steer the conversation towards the pre-established goal. Make sharing of agendas, talking points, information pamphlets, and expected outcomes compulsory before meetings so that everyone is prepared to contribute to a meaningful discussion.
Promote work-life balance
Finding harmony in a remote or distributed workplace is a critical need. Encourage team members to stay socially connected, highlight the importance of healthy living habits, encourage periods of digital disconnect and focus work, and enforce breaks and vacations. Finding the balance between professional and personal life should stem from company culture.
What to expect in the future of work:
Over the course of our global experiment with remote work, the sustained productivity of workers enabled by the digital workplace has led to businesses choosing remote work as a long-term work model. In fact, a survey by PWC has shown that 83% of employers feel that the digital, remote workplace has been successful for their companies and Gartner reports that 82% of employers will allow remote work even after the pandemic. This will signal the emergence of a hybrid workplace, where employees will be situated both remotely and on-site, as the cornerstone of the future of work.
Does that mean that video and virtual meetings will play a larger role in our work lives?
Yes and no.
No, because many organizations are now becoming adept at understanding their once ad-hoc video usage and remodeling it with data, technology, and processes that are more fine-tuned for defined purposes.
Let’s take the case of a team developing a new feature update – Without a defined digital process, this process would likely involve ideating, whiteboarding, note sharing, discussions, collaboration, multiple conversations, and decision-making – all using unstructured zoom calls, ad-hoc notes-taking tools, chaotic email threads, and long virtual conferences.
However, with the emergence of seamlessly integrated tools and creative process flows, companies can use asynchronous work practices equipped with tools specifically designed for each step of the workflow. This will help define the role of virtual meetings to enable synchronous conversations only when necessary while enabling asynchronous communication through messaging apps and pre-recorded video messages.
Circling back to the question, we also predict companies embracing future-equipped video communication such as virtual reality conferencing tools such as Spatial and Immersed that provide a surprisingly immersive experience of being in proximity with other people on the platforms, thereby making virtual communication feel more real. Another interesting development comes from companies like Kumospace and Gathertown that help simulate water-cooler chats.
Video communication in the future of work will demand a diverse use of technology where success will be driven by the resilience and ability of the workforce to foresee and adapt to an evolving world. As with all disruption, to succeed, you have to stay ahead of the game.
💡 Hatica’s work analytics platform equips engineering managers to analyze and measure their teams’ communication health. By staying cognizant of teammates’ work meeting load and availability of quiet days, where employees do not attend meetings outside work hours, managers can identify signals of virtual meeting fatigue and burnout and proactively address those issues in the workplace.