You wake up in the morning, look at your schedule and see a wall of back to back Zoom meetings. Your heart sinks. Navigating these days can feel overwhelming and exhausting, but fear not, we’re here to equip you with the tools to help.
Since 2020 this schedule has become a familiar picture for many of us. Even as we integrate back into the office, the popular ‘flexible’ or ‘hybrid’ approach means that many meetings will continue to be taken over Zoom. Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has been exploring the implications of prolonged video chats and how this can lead to the dreaded ‘Zoom fatigue’.
It has been discovered that there are 4 key aspects of Zoom calls that lead to this draining of our energy, mood and focus. Let’s take a look at what these are and how you can try to mitigate their impact the next time you log in.
- Excessive close-up eye contact is intense
To avoid looking distracted or disinterested, we stay fixated on the screen during a zoom call, especially in smaller groups. However the sheer amount of eye contact coupled with the size of faces on screens is very unnatural for us.
When meeting physically, we switch attention between looking at the speaker, taking notes and observing the environment. However, on Zoom calls, we’re constantly looking directly at everyone.
A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” Bailenson said. “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”
When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict (both unlikely outcomes of the daily account review!). “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is that you’re in a hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said.
What to do: Until the platforms change their interface, we recommend that you take Zoom out of the full-screen option and reduce the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor. This will reduce the size of the faces and mitigate this hyper-aroused state. It has also been shown to have a positive impact if you have an external keyboard between yourself and the screen to increase the personal space bubble.
- Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing
Constantly seeing yourself on a screen for multiple hours per day, again, is extremely unnatural.
Studies show that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. Rather than a quick look in the mirror a few times a day, many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for large parts of the working day. It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful and there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.
What to do: Bailenson recommends that platforms change the default practice of beaming the video to both yourself and others, when it only needs to be sent to others. This is something that Microsoft Teams have in place, however this is not the case for Zoom. In the meantime, you should use the “hide self-view” button, which can be accessed by right-clicking your own photo (just ensure your face is framed properly in the video first!).
- Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility
As opposed to the real-world, where we can walk around and move constantly; videoconferencing has a single-set field of view, meaning that we will generally stay in the same spot for long periods of time. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.
What to do: Bailenson recommends people think more about the room they’re videoconferencing in, where the camera is positioned and whether things like an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen or a standing desk will allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. And of course, turning your video off periodically during meetings is a good ground rule to set for groups, just to give brief nonverbal rest.
- The cognitive load is much higher in video chats
During face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally make and interpret nonverbal gestures and cues subconsciously. However in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive these same signals.
In effect, Bailenson said, “You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the centre of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
Gestures could also mean different things in a video meeting context. A sidelong glance to someone during an in-person meeting means something very different than a person on a video chat grid looking off-screen to their child who just walked into their home office.
What to do: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio only” break. This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen. This way for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.
- A bonus tip!
We often run to our desk just as our meetings are starting and connect straight away, joining in a somewhat chaotic and stressful headspace.
You can change your mood completely by giving yourself just one minute at your desk before joining the call.
Take your seat, close your eyes, take a deep breath in through your nose for 5 seconds and then exhale slowly out for 7 seconds.
Repeat this 5 times and see how much of a difference it makes!
Join your Zoom calls present, relaxed and grounded.
Let us know how you get on!