Zoom meetings are exploding around the world, in every profession and among every social group. You can now connect both personally and professionally with everyone from your boss on the other side of town, to your grandson on the other side of the world.
Virtual meetings are easy to both schedule and attend, from the comfort of home. Sounds pretty convenient. You only need to get half-dressed (upper half), comb your hair (do your best since salons are closed), and create a presentable “face”—since that is all anyone will see. (I will tackle the issue of Zoom backgrounds in another column.)
Considering the minimal amount of preparation, at least as compared to attending live meetings, why then, are Zoom meetings so exhausting?
Virtual Meetings Are Mentally Taxing
In an article in National Geographic, Julia Sklar explained some of the factors that contribute to what has been coined as “Zoom fatigue.” [i] She notes that whatever virtual platform you are using to interact, including FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts, their widespread use during the COVID-19 pandemic has “launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.”
Most of us can relate to this experience as we sit at attention for often hours on end, nodding appropriately, smiling awkwardly, and trying to observe virtual meeting protocol of maintaining eye contact with the tiny camera at the top of our computer. When your eyes wander, as they will, to browse the gallery-view screen many people choose, you see numerous friends and colleagues engaged in the same vigilance task as you.
But unlike a real meeting, you can only see but not hear them. They are suffering silently, either muted or trying to keep the noise down, lest their square light up like a spotlight, drawing attention to them. It is bad enough they are already sitting in a fishbowl, afraid everyone else is staring at them (some of us are). They also want to make sure they do not become the most memorable portion of the meeting through unintended noise.
Sklar sheds some additional light on the mental complications of the gallery view. She explains that this “Brady Bunch-style” screen option challenges the central vision of the brain, “forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.” She also notes that group video chats run the risk of becoming less collaborative, because only one “conversation” can take place effectively at a time, and we are unable to recognize the behavior of other participants, something she notes we would perceive through peripheral vision during a live meeting.
She explains that for some Zoom participants, “the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.”
Could this explain the way we feel after a day of Zoom calls? Perhaps a better question is: Why was our day filled with Zoom calls to begin with?
Fighting Back Zoom Fatigue: When Less Is More
We are Zoomed-out because of overuse. Some business and social groups are over-communicating: holding virtual meetings to discuss issues that would previously have been appropriately communicated by email or text message—if at all. Many people feel there is no reason to assemble everyone together on the same computer screen to provide a weekly (daily?) update or “check-in.”
Having fewer meetings of shorter duration can make video conferencing more valuable, capitalizing on the ease of transmitting important information, streamlined and succinct. And for companies with multiple divisions, additional business can be conducted in break-out rooms. Fewer people means less pressure, which might make people feel more comfortable and able to speak freely. Smaller virtual groups are often more cohesive, resulting in increased rapport.
Quality Over Quantity
If virtual work-related meetings are here to stay, companies will have to find a way to prevent employees from being subjected to too much of a good thing. Avoiding information overload involves careful consideration of what types of interactions need to take place virtually, and what kind of information is better absorbed through what we now refer to as old school methods such as email.
The same rationale applies to social Zoom use. After all, social events are supposed to create fun, not fatigue. With an endless stream of virtual events actively being marketed, so far mostly free of cost, an increasing number of people are becoming more judicious in their selections. Faced with a virtual embarrassment of social riches, many people are opting for rich social experiences instead—preferably with a select group of friends. Believe it or not, some people have actually gone back to using the telephone. Remember those?