Zoom Fatigue: a New Kind of Burnout in the World of Remote Work

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Remote work is often touted as the best of employee life. You get to lounge on the seaside, finish reports on a café, or meet deadlines in the comfort of your pajamas.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent millions to work from their homes, an unexpected problem suddenly surfaced: Zoom Fatigue. Though virtual, though in the comfort of your pajamas, video conferencing seems to drain the energy of every remote worker in almost every industry. Zoom Fatigue isn’t exclusive to people using Zoom — it encompasses all video conferencing and telecommunicating platforms that enable life and work to continue in quarantine.

A Look into Zoom Fatigue

In the pre-COVID-19 world, there’s a strong tactile, auditory, and even olfactory element to work. There are the bulk rags used to clean the office desks, the low whispers from the other rooms, the smell of fresh coffee from the pantry. And a typical meeting comprised of a group of people huddled together and engaged in a conversation.  This is the brain’s comfort zone.

Humans are social animals and are hardwired to look for communication cues other than spoken words. In a face-to-face meeting, a person listens to the speaker, while simultaneously analyzing the intonation, facial expressions, and hand gestures. The person notices if the person fidgets, if they inhale too quickly, or if they are driven by strong emotions. All these small details create a holistic picture of what the speaker is saying and what the expected response is. And because the brain is wired to process all these stimuli at once, you don’t put in conscious effort to analyze the situation — a response comes naturally to you.

However, video calls erase all these stimuli. In a grainy feed, a remote worker can’t see hand-gestures, fidgeting, or body language. Facial expressions are hardly noticeable. As such, people are forced to pay intense attention to words.

This is something the brain isn’t used to. People are highly dependent on non-verbal cues for communication, especially when the nature of the relationship lies outside the professional sphere. Zoom get-togethers and parties are twice as draining, even if the person is talking to their closest friends.

The sudden shift of focus of communication, the overwhelming verbal stimuli, and the complete lack of non-verbal cues make it harder for the brain to process what’s happening. Thus, Zoom fatigue.

Processing the Multi-Person View

man working on his laptopThe problem is amplified when people see multiple little square screens in a single meeting.

In a face-to-face huddle, a person can focus on one speaker while tracking the response from others via peripheral vision. And it’s extremely easy to switch the focus of attention from one person to the other.

However, in a multi-person screen, the brain finds it incredibly difficult to decode what’s happening. It’s hard for you to keep track of what’s happening to the group. Moreover, it’s difficult to facilitate collaboration. Whereas face-to-face conversations enable one to interrupt the other respectfully, video conference etiquette doesn’t allow that. In most cases, one person speaks, while the others are on mute, contented to listen. Parallel conversations are impossible. More importantly, because the communications are not dynamic, it gives people the sense that they accomplished nothing.

Combat Zoom Fatigue

The good news is that there are several ways to combat Zoom Fatigue. It takes time for employees to get used to full-time video conferencing and telecommunicating. But by following these practices, employees will be able to make the most of these platforms.

  • Avoid Multitasking – It might seem as if you achieve more if you multi-task, but performance dips when you are focused on different things at once. Experts suggest that productivity decreases by as much as 40% when people switch tasks. So as much as possible, encourage employees to put away other things that could distract them during a meeting, like their mail inbox or Slack messages. This will help them stay present in the moment and get the most out of the meeting.
  • Reduce Screen Stimuli – People stare at themselves during Zoom calls — you are your biggest on-screen stimuli. To avoid fatigue, you have to reduce the on-screen stimuli and hide yourself from view. Encourage the participants to use plain backgrounds, as well, because their natural backgrounds—their cats, plants, books, furniture, lotus flower mandala tapestry—all grab attention away from the speaker.
  • Switch to Phone Calls or Email – If the meeting can be an email, then send an email. If employees have been through so many consecutive video meetings, perhaps it’s time for a phone call instead.

A huge chunk of the workforce will remain in remote work even if the pandemic dies down, so people can’t let Zoom Fatigue get in the way of productivity. There are ways to combat Zoom Fatigue, and once employees have mastered them, Zooming will be just as easy and productive as face-to-face meetings.

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