The (kind of) Science behind zoom (/teams/hangouts/blue jeans..etc) fatigue
Author Krupa Solanki  | 

As we turn the corner to a new year, many of the troubles of 2020 linger on. In the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, rising numbers of COVID cases are leading to renewed lockdowns. Except for some of the eastern hemisphere, much work remains virtual with offices either partially or wholly unoccupied, for the time being. Further afield, conversations about the road ahead and the opportunities for innovation the pandemic brings continue in gusto, but for now we are very much still at the epicentre of crisis. Speaking to friends, clients, and colleagues, it seems that one of the greatest joys of the festive break had been the absence of video conferencing. Three weeks into the new year, many of us are already experience a renewed sense of so-called zoom fatigue. With 3 weeks remaining in the UK’s latest lockdown and remote working still prevalent elsewhere, why does video conferencing fatigue so much, and what can we do about it?

Video conferencing is fast running the risk of becoming traditional toxic meeting culture manifested in the new virtual world of work. What would ordinarily have been a simple email, dropping by a colleague’s desk or a brief watercooler chat, has transformed into a 30-minute video call. At the commence of the great remote working experiment, much of this appeared to be a reactive offence to the new way of working; all the keep calm and carry-on energy exhibited in video conferences masquerading as productivity. Filling our days will endless video calls leaves the inevitable question as to when people actually get their primary work done? The answer of this may be found in the reports that since working from home, people have worked both started earlier and finished later.

The science of zoom fatigue has been more carefully (and technically detailed) by the Psychiatric Times (which you can read here). In this article, psychologists detail the chemical and biological ramifications of video conferencing and highlight how science might exam our digital exhaustion. Away from synapses and chemicals, social science can help us understand why too.

In the first instance, a great deal of zoom fatigue stems from an enhanced and accelerated form of general tension that already exist in workplace relationships. As we explore in much of our persona and typology work, each individual employee has a different personality and position in the workplace ecosystem – they may be gatekeepers, connectors, influencers…etc. Early reports told us that video conferencing has had a more equalising effect in workplaces in that no one person is a head of the table. However, considering that emoting body language is more difficult over VC, the truth may be that one person is naturally propelled to take a more dominant role in chairing meetings, otherwise the alternative is chaos or silence. Neither is great. So instead of being a great equaliser, video conferencing maybe actually merely reinforces the status quo with the louder and more dominant figures leading proceedings. Whether you are the dominant or the spectator, both experiences are equally fatiguing.

One of the most compelling reasons for zoom fatigue, especially for introverts, is the enhanced judgement and pressure associated with video conferencing – especially when technology fails you. In these instances, put on the spot, people become patently aware of the virtual eyes on them. In a physical context, time can be filled by small talk, knowing smiles about the pitfalls of technology and a desperate beckon of any passing AV person. However virtually, the experience is heightened and with the absence of diversion, many tech issues manifest themselves as either unhelpful comment about the location of the screen share button or perhaps more painfully, silence. Combined with the fact that in video conferencing our gaze is drawn to the screen, the technology terror is enhanced; minutes feeling like hours.

Gaze is further important too. How often when we are conversing with colleagues, friends, and acquaintances in real life, do we unwaveringly stare directly at their faces while they talk? Not often, I suspect. That video conferencing draws our eyes to the screen means that we are effectively gazing directly at peoples faces when we talk; more alarming is the fact that when we look away that might be construed as rudeness. One study to this effect claimed that phone or conferencing systems negatively influenced the ways we feel about people: according to the study “delays of even 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused” and often looking away might be negatively construed as disinterest. Video conferencing has therefore created new social nodes of conveying emotion and often this results in overemoting. It is less easy to convey personality and warmth virtually so new rituals of constant gaze, embarrassing thumbs up and (too) broad smiles have become new manifestations of social intelligence. Video conferences with multiple participants magnify this exhausting experience; not only are they depersonalising, the brady bunch style gallery makes it more difficult still as it “challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully”.

Another layer of exhaustion is that, in many instances, a video conference is effectively inviting someone into your home. There are colleagues who have worked closely together for 20 plus years with friendly enough relationships who have never been given a privileged glimpse into the others home. Bringing work into a space reserved for domestic and social interactions therefore creates another level of stress. For people living with children, pets and/or awkward flatmates, any of whom could wander into shot or pronounce something embarrassing close to a microphone, these levels of stress are immense. Given all these moving parts, any video conference becomes akin to the tension of managing feuding relatives at a wedding: we all need to be there, but no one is quite sure what will happen. On the flip side, it is all not bad, these glimpses and fleeting human interventions into the lives of people you work with have also been cited as strengthening relationships and creating bonds.

Understanding zoom fatigue is half the battle, but there are more structured ways to combat its exhausting effects. Avoiding multitasking during calls helps to engage the mind and avoid cognitive overload, but this doesn’t mean you should share directly at the faces on your screen – perhaps taking notes by hand can assist with deflecting gaze. Switching to audio only calls may also be beneficial with the added benefit you can move while doing them; Studies show that walking meeting increase creativity by 60% which is an alluring statistic. Other technology which stimulates and facilitates more spontaneous interaction may also be an answer: Instant messaging such as teams/slack channels can shed some of the VC burden while maintaining dialogue and relationships. Similarly, calendaring less VC’s or blocking off hours or day can be equally beneficial. Baker Mackenzie, a global law firm, has introduced such an initiative to help combat zoom fatigue with employees encouraged to leave Wednesday’s and from 1-2pm on other workdays free from video conferencing (Read about it here). Indeed, similar company-wide initiatives from the corporate crown may have an inspiring effect on morale. As we see often in our consultancy work, such initiatives very rarely work unless they are endorsed from the top down. And active declaration is not enough, managers and executives must take the medicine themselves and block ‘no-VC’ slots; Chances are it will increase the overall health of the organisation and lead to more effective decision making and enhanced productivity.