Avoiding Zoom FatigueMar 06, 2023
THE NEW WAY OF COLLABORATION
I have said this several times every weekday for nearly nine years. My Zoom meeting room automatically mutes invited guests when they enter the room. This setting was enabled after a few ad hoc invites led to Taylor Swift music, barking dogs, or yelling children suddenly bursting from my Macbook speakers when a colleague entered the room. Being muted when you enter the room provides an opportunity to get composed.
The trick is people don’t always realize they are muted because they didn’t take that action themselves, so I have developed an eagle eye for the body language others display seconds before they speak and burst in with, “You’re muted,” before they waste their breath talking to an unhearing audience.
Our company’s “camera on” policy helps my speech-predicting talents. Honestly, I don’t really get the point of getting on a video conference and not turning your camera on. I send T-Mobile a lot of money every month for the privilege of being able to make phone calls. I don’t need to replicate the experience on my laptop. Also, it’s 2023 and we can speak in real-time through video. WOW! I’m not sure my teen and pre-teen kids even know how to make a phone call given the number of Facetime requests I should but often don’t decline while driving (just being honest). Let’s all step into the present and future together and turn our cameras on for video meetings.
I work from home for an entirely virtual organization, Stadia Church Planting. We have 48 employees in 20 states. I live in Maryland and work from an office in my basement, but I interact daily with team members in Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, and Florida. Earlier this week, I was in a meeting with a woman Zooming in from Kenya! I’ve been working like this since long before a global pandemic redefined the words “Zoom” and “Teams.”
Video meetings were viewed as a popular alternative to in-person meetings prior to March of 2020, but in the last three years, their use has proliferated enormously. Providing a facsimile of face-to-face human interaction, video meetings allow attendees to gather nonverbal cues that supplement their understanding of what is being expressed. Yes, body language is usually only observable from the mid-torso up, but experience suggests that some body language is better than none. A better understanding in communication leads to more nuanced conversation, higher degrees of empathy, and improved collaboration. All without having to drive or fly (or change out of your pajama pants) to meet physically.
In short, Zoom meetings are awesome.
Or at least they can be.
“Zoom fatigue” is real and has nothing to do with feeling tired after a particularly vigorous sprint. It is not uncommon for me to be on Zoom for five or more hours a day, especially on Mondays. By the end of a day of repeated Zoom meetings, my brain sometimes gets tired. That is Zoom fatigue.
In 2003, Stanford established their Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) to study the psychological and behavioral impact of virtual interaction, and researchers from the VHIL have created the Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale (ZEF). Their hopes for this scale are to identify the things that cause Zoom fatigue so we can evolve our way of speaking with one another in the virtual space. Virtual isn’t going away, and if we go away from virtual, we will be left behind.
One of the researchers who developed the ZEF, Jeff Hancock, said this about the purpose of the scale and subsequent studies utilizing it: “When we first had elevators, we didn’t know whether we should stare at each other or not in that space. More recently, ridesharing has brought up questions about whether you talk to the driver or not, or whether to get in the back seat or the passenger seat. We have to evolve ways to make [human interaction] work for us. We’re in that era now with videoconferencing, and understanding the mechanisms will help us understand the optimal way to do things for different settings, different organizations, and different kinds of meetings.”
So, since “Zooming” isn’t going anywhere and Zoom meetings are awesome (or can be), how can we evolve so we don’t feel so darn fatigued at the end of the day and can still muster up the energy for a particularly vigorous sprint?
Well, thank God for Stanford and Stanford researchers because they have big brains and great suggestions. Here is my take on four ideas they discussed with Stanford News in February of 2021.
COMBATING ZOOM FATIGUE
First, close-up eye contact is intense.
We all have that friend who doesn’t blink enough and maintains eye contact too long and too intensely. Bill, how are your eyes not bloodshot with dryness? Most of us in regular conversation break eye contact periodically, but on Zoom, we’re all looking at each other all the time, even when we aren’t talking. And depending on your set-up, those faces you’re staring at are probably closer to your own face than they would be in a typical conversation. Excessive eye contact and physical closeness are signs of either intimacy or conflict, but when you’re discussing plans for the upcoming Q3 staff meeting, intimacy and conflict aren’t present. So we suppress our bodies’ natural response, which takes energy and leads to fatigue.
Get a second monitor and a wireless keyboard. Move back from your screen and take your Zoom meetings out of full-screen mode to reduce the size and perceived nearness of your colleagues. This may not cut down on the feeling of “we’re all here just looking at each other” but at least it helps with the proximity problem.
Second, looking at yourself is weird.
When were you last in a conversation with someone who held a mirror right next to their face, so you were looking at yourself the whole time? If you have an answer, you and your conversation partner are weird. And yet, this happens all the time in Zoom. Looking at ourselves leads to self-critique which leads to stress. Believe me, after thousands of hours on Zoom in the last nine years, I am acutely aware of how gray my hair is getting, how dry my skin gets in the winter, how dumb I look when I start to zone out, and so on and so on. Even on the rare days I’m feeling above average on the vanity scale, this constant self-analysis and self-critique is tiring.
So stop. I don’t mean stop self-critiquing when you look at yourself. That is impossible. I mean stop looking at yourself. In Zoom, you can go to your video settings and click “hide self-view.” Try it. You don’t have a mirror of yourself in the real world. Why have one in the virtual world?
Third, sitting still sucks.
Cameras have a limited field of view, which means our range of motion is confined during video meetings. When I’m speaking with people in a room or on a stage, I move about. I don’t run all over the place like Axl Rose during Welcome to the Jungle, but I will take a few steps back and forth. A growing body of research suggests that better thinking is done while people are moving. Better thinking leads to better communication.
Maybe you need to rethink where you’re doing video meetings from. I recently bought a better camera and moved things around on my desk so that I can stand up and pace a bit during meetings and still be heard and in frame. This gives the added benefit to others on the call of being able to see more of my body language and proves I do indeed change out of my pajama pants before showing up to work.
Last, video conferencing requires more thinking.
One of the best benefits of video meetings over phone meetings is the capacity for observing nonverbal cues. But, it’s not exactly the same, is it? Especially when we aren’t the speaker, we make exaggerated movements like we’re in a silent film. Also, because we are all staring at each other, we’re all interpreting everyone’s body language simultaneously, eyes flitting from little square to little square. All of this leads to more effort in expressing ourselves in ways that will be understood as well as interpreting all the nonverbal input we are receiving simultaneously. This doesn’t even include the distractions from incoming email, the budgeting sheet open on your second monitor, the translation you have to do when your internet glitches and you missed a couple of words mid-sentence, or the sound of your chihuahua on the hardwood floors above you.
Try to limit your input. If you’re just listening for a bit, turn away from the screen…just not toward work on another screen. That’s disrespectful to the speaker, and it won’t reduce your visual inputs. If you have time on a call where you can just listen, turn and look away from the screen and just listen.
I could write a whole other article on the art of listening on Zoom, but first, let’s figure out how to end the Zoom day with more energy so the next time you hear, “You’re muted,” you make an exaggerated “a-ha” eyebrow raise and continue on happily rather than quietly muttering four-letter words to yourself while you click the button to turn on your microphone.
By Matt Murphy, MBA - VP of Mission Support, Stadia Church Planting