During the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work became a daily reality for Americans across the country. With the world in lockdown, face-to-face meetings became impossible, so we looked to digital alternatives. Enter Zoom.
Over the course of the pandemic, the number of meeting participants on this particular video conferencing platform grew by 2,900%, nearly tripling Zoom’s previous user base. Now that the pandemic has passed its peak, we are seeing a gradual return of white-collar workers to their offices but Zoom isn’t going anywhere.
According to McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey, 58% of Americans have been offered the option to work remotely at least one day a week. What’s more, when a flexible work arrangement is available, 87% would take the opportunity to combine remote work with on-site work.
The prevalence of hybrid work means that video conferencing apps are here to stay. It also means that Zoom fatigue remains a very real problem for remote employees across America.
What is Zoom fatigue?
The term Zoom fatigue refers to a particular kind of exhaustion, anxiety, and apathy that seems to result from the overuse of video conferencing platforms like Zoom.
In early 2021, Professor Jeremy Bailenson published a peer-reviewed article in Technology, Mind, and Behavior titled “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue.” In this article, Bailenson demonstrates that Zoom fatigue is an observable phenomenon and suggests some explanations for how it comes about.
Bailenson makes it clear that Zoom itself is not a negative platform, reminding us that “it is important to reiterate what an amazing tool Zoom has been.” It has been instrumental in making remote work much easier for companies and employees alike. But his work also shows that Zoom fatigue is physically discernible and not just a trick of the mind.
Why do remote workers get Zoom fatigue?
Bailenson theorizes that the mental fatigue we experience from overusing Zoom (or indeed, any other video conferencing tools) comes from nonverbal overload, which occurs when we receive too many nonverbal cues in a given social interaction.
In his article, Bailenson explains that in person, most people don’t usually think about how they are using body language or eye contact. In his words, “we are rarely consciously attending to our own gestures and other nonverbal cues.” However, this is not the case in video interactions.
These nonverbal exchanges are extremely complex but require little to no effort for most people. But over video, we have to work much harder to communicate with our colleagues. For example, trying to show our appreciation with a clear smile without being able to look directly into their eyes or nodding in agreement more vigorously than we would do in person.
With more hours spent in front of our computer cameras than ever before, this constant self-monitoring can get exhausting very quickly. That being said, it’s just one of many possible reasons for Zoom fatigue.
Intense eye contact and feeling self-conscious
In everyday life, we usually only make direct eye contact with people we have a close personal connection to—it would be uncomfortable to look a stranger straight in the eyes when you’re talking to them for the first time.
Bailenson uses examples of an elevator or subway car, places where we’re much closer than usual to acquaintances or strangers. In either of these situations, we normally tend to look away from each other, down at the floor, or use our phones to relieve the awkwardness.
On video conferences, the faces of our managers, clients, and colleagues are presented to us much closer than would be comfortable in an office situation. What’s more, when you’re looking at the screen or camera, it simulates direct eye contact.
Face-to-face, you would never look directly into someone’s eyes for the entirety of a meeting—but that’s how it comes across on camera (even if, most of the time, we’re just looking at ourselves). This excessive, as Bailenson calls it, “close-up eye gaze” can be a real strain as we feel directly watched, adding a sense of pressure to what might otherwise be a stress-free conversation.
What’s more, the self-view window built into video conferencing tools means that we are constantly looking at a mirror image of ourselves, which can make us more self-conscious and distract us from the task at hand.
Video meetings are less rewarding than real-life social interactions
We experience elevated levels of energy and motivation when our dopamine receptors are activated. This happens when our brains perceive that we have received a reward—for example, having conversations in person and exercising collaborative effort.
Eye contact is something else that triggers this dopamine reward mechanism. Research shows that in person, making eye contact helps us memorize faces while increasing our attractiveness and likability to one another.
Compare this with a video call where there is no real eye contact because it is interrupted by our cameras. This reduces how rewarding each individual interaction can be.
Technical issues with remote communication
Each video conferencing platform in itself tends to run quite smoothly, but slow or interrupted WiFi can cause great frustration. For instance, even small delays in response time can negatively impact our perceptions of each other, creating a sense of distrust and discomfort where there might otherwise be none.
How to decrease fatigue from video calls
So, Zoom fatigue occurs when we are overloaded with nonverbal cues and not getting the dopamine rewards associated with face-to-face communication. Here are a few practical steps you can take to combat these side effects and make video conferencing work for you.
Minimize your screen size and hide self-view
In his article, Bailenson suggests that Zoom change its default settings to hide the self-view window, or at least program this step to happen automatically after users have checked that they’re in the shot. But you can take this step yourself manually to reduce the negative mirror effect and allow you to be more present and productive in meetings.
The close-up eye gaze effect can also be mitigated by reducing the size of the display windows, making video participants seem further away. These changes alone should help to at least partially relieve the stress from nonverbal overload.
Give yourself audio breaks
During in-person meetings, people have the ability to move around, change their sitting positions, stand up to demonstrate something, or pace around while they figure things out. Various studies have demonstrated that, compared with sitting still, movement can help us to think better.
Telephone meetings allow us to do all of the above without compromising the line of communication, but on a video call, you have to sit and stay within the confines of the screen. The fewer hours you spend on camera, the more able you are to move around.
Bailenson suggests making “audio-only” Zoom meetings the default, or better yet, that you insist on taking some calls via telephone to free your body from the tedium of sitting. But this doesn’t mean doing away with video calls altogether. How many and which meetings can be taken over the phone might be decided as part of a meeting audit.
Conduct an audit of your video meetings
By conducting an audit of their video meetings, companies can better support their employees, reduce general mental fatigue, and increase productivity.
Leslie Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, suggests that the best approach to an audit is to remove all meetings to see which ones are really necessary. His selection criteria for what makes a meeting essential are the following 3 questions:
- Is there a clear and compelling reason to bring individuals together?
- Does the content of the proposed meeting require direct conversation or interaction?
- Would any other method of communication be less effective than a meeting?
According to Perlow, a meeting should only be added back into the schedule if the answer to all 3 questions is yes.
Now you know: Zoom fatigue arises from nonverbal overload and a lack of dopamine reward systems in the brain. By optimizing your company’s approach to meetings, spending less time in front of the camera, and making a few easy changes to your video conferencing setup, you can get the better of Zoom fatigue.