Over the course of 2020 and beyond, many of us have ended up using virtual communication platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, FaceTime and Skype more than perhaps we ever imagined we would. These platforms have undoubtedly facilitated a move towards flexible and remote working.
However, what emerged was people complaining of feeling increasingly drained as a result of these virtual interactions – what came to be known as ‘Zoom Fatigue’. So, what seems to cause this phenomenon, and what can we do about it?
There are several theories about the causes of Zoom Fatigue. One concerns the fact that we humans tend to like our interactions to be face-to-face and in person. Being able to make eye contact and read non-verbal cues such as body posture and subtle facial expressions assists effective communication. In the virtual environment, a lot of this information is obscured as we also lose the ability to look someone in the eye. As a result, we have to work harder to decode what’s being said or someone’s reaction or intentions.
This is all made that much more difficult by the fact that there is often some time delay that is not there in everyday interactions. Studies have found that a delay of even less than half a second is enough to cause people to view the other party as less friendly and cheerful.9 With a delay of 1.2 seconds, additional issues emerge, including people rating others as having lower competence, ambition and self-discipline.
Another challenge relates to the distractions that can abound. To begin with, it’s usually a short detour from whatever virtual platform we are using to our email client or browser. If you haven’t ‘wandered off’ in this way during a virtual meeting or presentation, you have staying power that is far superior to my own. Though not impossible, this sort of detuning is much harder in face-to-face interactions.
Another distraction can simply be a wall of faces and backgrounds in front of us. Whether we like it or not, some of our attention may go to the titles of books on bookshelves, a random pet or someone’s interior design choices. An additional input for our brain may be our own image, which might up our self-consciousness and feed a concern for ‘how we look’.
Given the factors above, it’s no wonder if some of us find ourselves suffering from a dose of Zoom Fatigue from time-to-time. Here are some tips that can help ease the pain:
1. MINDSET – IT’S NOT ALL BAD It’s natural to have a downer on virtual communication if we compare it to the ‘real thing’. However, maybe we should sometimes reflect on the fact that it is vastly better than nothing. The reality is that many meetings would previously have necessitated sizeable chunks of time to be taken out of our day, and perhaps involving significant effort and expense (e.g. international travel). The virtual environment has certainly made meetings and collaboration more accessible. I think it’s also fair to say that many interactions that happen in a virtual setting would not have happened at all previously, or would have been very delayed.
So, while virtual interactions are far from perfect, they are still an opportunity to collaborate, deepen relationships and drum up business. In my work, a move to virtual has allowed me to deliver coaching, keynote presentations, webinars and workshops that simply would have been impossible before. The technology has allowed me, on certain days, to engage with three or four separate groups, sometimes in very different parts of the world. Would I prefer to be in the same room as the other parties? Yes. Would I prefer to deliver value virtually than not at all? Yes, again.
2. FEWER VIRTUAL MEETINGS While technology has afforded new opportunities, its accessibility can cause large stretches of the day to be eaten up with virtual interactions. So, before suggesting or agreeing to a virtual meeting, perhaps think if it might be better done another way, such as on the phone.
Another approach might be to schedule days or half-days with no virtual meetings at all. If you have the authority, could you make this ‘a thing’ for your team? Might you, for instance, call for ‘Zoom-free Fridays’ or something similar? Might you be able to consolidate virtual meetings into one or two days a week, to leave other days blissfully free of this particular form of communication? This may have particular relevance if your desire is to devote time to ‘deep work’.
3. ARE SHORTER VIRTUAL CALLS AN OPTION? With face-to-face meetings, the minimum default duration is often one hour. If people have travelled to the meeting, anything less might seem rude. Even if people are congregating from different parts of the same building, an hour seems to be the typical minimum duration for a meeting. This convention has tended to linger, even if there’s less justification for it. And, as we know from Parkinson’s law, a meeting will generally expand to fill the amount of time allowed for it. Ahead of time, if you’re the instigator, think about how long the meeting genuinely needs. Could 30 or 45 minutes, do it, for instance? An agenda that is circulated ahead of time can help keep discussions tight.
4. KEEP SOME VIRTUAL-FREE SPACE IN YOUR SCHEDULE AND CALENDAR ‘Back-to-back’ virtual meetings are probably best avoided, so, if your diary allows, think about scheduling time between your virtual meetings. When coaching individuals, for efficiency, I may schedule several in a single day. However, a common pattern is for calls to be scheduled for 45 minutes, but to start on the hour. This 15-minute ‘buffer’ allows for a bit of overrun, but even if that happens, I usually have at least a few minutes to get away from my desk or grab a drink. I’ve personally found that even these brief interludes can re-energise me for the next session.
5. CONSIDER TURNING OFF SELF-VIEW In some platforms, for example, Zoom and Webex, it is possible to turn off ‘self-view’ while keeping the camera on so other people can see you. This function may help to reduce the self-consciousness that staring at our own image can induce. Some suggest turning off the camera entirely. That may work in some settings, but in the context of a meeting where others have cameras enabled, there’s a risk of appearing rather ‘anonymous’ and somewhat absent. Even where your active participation is not required, becoming invisible will generally increase the chances of getting diverted to other tasks, too, with the risk that we’ll miss something valuable. My advice is, therefore, that if you opt to turn off self-view, that you keep your webcam enabled unless there is some overriding reason not to.
6. CUT DOWN ON DISTRACTIONS Think about having only the virtual platform app or window open on the desktop. You may consider blocking other apps and parts of the internet with appropriate technology . Also, if possible, turn your phone off, put it in ‘do not disturb’ mode, keep it out of arm’s reach or, better still, leave it in another room.
This blog has been extract from Dr John Briffa's book Working Well - the Science of Healthy High Performance.