Zooming is to videoconferencing as Kleenex is to tissues and Google is to search. Everyone does it, but very few enjoy it. Now there is a phrase for that feeling. “Zoom fatigue” has entered colloquial language as shorthand for that sense of emotional overload, tiredness, depression, and burnout that comes over us after the fifth hour in front of a screen filled with small squares containing our colleagues’ faces.
In the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, online connection tools seemed like the perfect antidote to people’s isolation. Send everyone home to work, give them tools to stay connected to the office and each other, and worklife will continue as always. And, on the whole, it has succeeded. We use videoconferencing for all kinds of connections: from office meetings to family get-togethers, team meetings to scavenger hunts, business networking to first dates.
In a study by Robert Half, “[T]hree-quarters of professionals surveyed say they participate in virtual meetings . . . spending nearly one-third of their workday on camera.” Thirty-eight percent say they have experienced zoom fatigue. That may explain why only 20 percent of poll respondents said, “They are actively listening and providing feedback” during video calls. In this article I will examine zooming fatigue and offer some solutions.
Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal: 55 percent is visual, 38 percent is vocal (tone of voice), and 7 percent is the words themselves. This is how our ancestors communicated in the savannah eons ago, before language, when those in the back of the line took their cues from the body language of those ahead of them.
Humans are puny animals. We couldn’t run fast enough, bite hard enough, or fight well enough to survive alone. But we can cooperate. We are group animals. We thrive through communication, collaboration, and teamwork.
Our brains have not evolved as quickly as our phones. They still prefer the savannah. They still work to keep us safe. In meetings, they simultaneously take in everyone’s voluntary and involuntary body signals and decode them for us. These understandings help us to decipher who is in charge, who is paying attention, who is multitasking, and who has tuned out.
Remember In-Person Meetings?
We remember the spontaneity, warmth, friendship, and collegiality of in-person meetings. We remember walking from our desk to another room, encountering colleagues along the way. We remember looking for our best friend so we could sit together and compare notes during the meeting.
Subconsciously, we notice the nonverbal cues that set the tone and rhythm of a meeting. We pay attention to people’s posture, face and eye movements, gestures, and micro-expressions. These tell us what is really going on. We respond to cues as to when to pay attention, when to speak, and when to relax.
We also rarely sit still. We talk to those around us, share glances while others are talking, fidget, take notes, doodle, stand up to get coffee or stretch. Some of us multitask. Most of the time nobody else focuses on what any one participant is doing.
Nonverbal Communication in Videoconferences
“On Zoom, nonverbal behavior remains complex, but users need to work harder to send and receive signals.” We need to consciously manage our own body language and at the same time decode others’ body language cues.
“During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues. . . . Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us. . . . However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead.”
Online, our inability to correctly read subtle facial cues also hampers our ability to mirror others. Mirroring is a connecting gesture that happens in conversations when we unconsciously copy the positions and gestures of others. The most frequent mirroring occurs whenever you spontaneously smile in response to someone else’s smile.
If we can’t mirror, it is difficult to genuinely relate to others. “To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it, which makes mirroring essential to empathy and connections. When we can’t do it seamlessly as happens during a video chat, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions, and thus predict what they will do.”
Sources of Zooming Fatigue
Online we sit in one position for long periods of time, face the camera, and center ourselves in a small onscreen square. We feel like we are onstage, and so we perform. We exaggerate our gestures such as nodding, smiling, and laughing. We speak louder when called on. We try to ignore technological glitches that make it even harder to concentrate on content. The result is psychological overload─zoom fatigue. Let’s look in more detail at some of the most common sources of negative psychological impact.
- The multiplicity of backgrounds on the screen causes brain confusion and psychic strain. In person, our brains always survey each meeting venue first to be sure it is a safe space for us. In online meetings, the multitude of “rooms” creates overload as the brain tries to check out each one.
- Backgrounds are important. They say something about you. If you have the luxury of a separate office with a door that closes, it is fairly easy to create a nice professional background. If you are zooming from the dining room table shared with two home schoolers and dinner dishes, it is harder to carve out a professional space. When your work role and home background are not in synch, it distresses our brains.
- Often, people in shared space use digital backgrounds to separate their online view from their true surroundings. All is well and good until a quick head toss or wide arm gesture morphs your body into the background. Others invest in a room divider type of screen to split off their “office” space.
- Regardless of how we show our space, strangers’ eyes are invading our privacy, judging our knickknacks, searching for personal photos, and appraising the price of your abode. This privacy invasion is very disconcerting for your brain.
- In person, we adjust the space between ourselves and others according to the degree of intimacy involved. Online, colleagues and strangers are within one or two feet of your face because your viewing screen is part of your desktop computer or phone, and you want to be able to use the keyboard.
- “On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers and even strangers.”
- This creates an oxymoron: People are too close physically, and at the same time they are too far away in small two-dimensional spaces. Faces appear unusually large. The too close proximity fires up the brain’s “fight-or-flight” response.
- Love it or not, commuting created physical boundary lines between work and home. Remote working removed physical boundaries. Now tasks seem to slide into each other.
- In addition, you eat, help with homework, stream on social media, and work all from the same room. Doing a multitude of activities while in the same physical space confuses our brain because it is accustomed to associating specific spaces with specific activities.
- Attending online meetings from your regular workspace encourages you to multitask. Because you email, text, shop, and play from your work screen, there is always the temptation to do two other activities at once.
Rarely does zooming occur without some kind of technology glitch: transmission delays, out-of-synch audio, blurring, jiggling, or muting issues.
- “These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”
- Out-of-synch audio makes it almost impossible to follow the speaker’s logic. The brain often reads this discrepancy as a reason to attach negative adjectives to the speaker’s presentation.
- “You’re muted” is only one of the many glitches that impairs conversational flow. Unless participants are recognized by name, conversation tends to fall on one of two extremes: either total silence as everyone waits for someone to go first or cacophony as everyone speaks at once.
Online Meeting Conversations
The absence of visible body parts limits the number of cues the brain has to work with. In person, full-body language cues set the sequence and tempo of conversations. Online, such cues become less clear for a variety of reasons.
- In person, eye contact sets the pace of conversation. Online eye contact is artificial. In order to appear to be looking at others on the video screen, a speaker needs to look directly at the camera, cutting off any connection to the audience.
- Glances, meaningful in person, are meaningless online. For example, in person, sideway glances can reveal opinions and relationships. Online, glances may have nothing to do with the conversation. The glance may be to someone who has walked through the person’s “office” space or to answer a child’s question.
- Even if someone seems to be glancing at someone else in the meeting, it is never clear to others who the recipient is because the tiles are sequenced differently on each screen.
- Psychologically, not being able to see directly into peoples’ eyes can inhibit trust. When people seem to be looking elsewhere, we think they are being evasive, and so we assign negative traits to them such as shifty, disinterested, or lazy.
- Our sense of dislocation increases when we allow our visual image to show on screen. We are not used to seeing ourselves when we attend meetings or when we speak, so we constantly examine ourselves for flaws. This can make us self-conscious, increasing self-doubt and self-criticism and sometimes leading to deep despair.
- In person, your gaze moves around, touching on the speaker, other participants, the view outside, and so forth. Online, often the only visual is a sea of small boxes showcasing big heads. Because it is the only visual, attendees keep looking at them. To others this feels like staring. Staring means we are looking directly at other faces, directly at others’ eyes. Our brains read this as danger and go into” fight-or-flight” mode, which creates stress.
Clearly, it takes much more psychic attention and physical energy for attendees to make sense of what they see in videoconferences. The psychological burden has serious consequences for productivity, collaboration, and self-esteem. Can we ameliorate the negative aspects of online activities?
To make the gallery screen view less fatiguing and stressful:
- When using gallery view where all participants appear, shrink the image down by exiting full screen.
- Use speaker view instead of gallery view so that most of the screen shows only one person.
- Rest your eyes for a few seconds by minimizing the video window or just looking away.
- Set a meeting rule that only the speaker needs to be visible, as is typically the norm for webinars.
To avoid looking at yourself:
- Turn off your self-view camera while your video is on. This way you don’t see yourself while the other meeting participants continue to see you.
- Use the “improve my appearance” option to smooth face wrinkles. Think Doris Day’s requirement that Vaseline be smeared on camera lenses to make her look younger.
- Turn your camera off when you are not speaking.
- Use your cursor to drag your tile to the bottom of the screen where it is less visible.
While these fixes are useful for individuals, cumulatively they may make the meeting less successful. Meeting leaders are told to ask participants to be visible because having too many invisible people dampens the vitality of a meeting. Also, most participants assume that when someone turns off their video, it is because they are going to do something else─bathroom break, coffee refill, family interruption.
To improve online meeting conversations, the leader can take a variety of actions.
- Ahead of the meeting, set the expectation that participants should not multitask.
- Make sure everyone knows how you plan to run the meeting, especially how you plan to encourage conversation flow.
- Encourage collegiality by beginning meetings with small talk while participants sign on.
- Mute everyone who is not speaking to reduce the impact of random noises.
- Make sure that everyone participates because, online, silence can lead to invisibility.
- If closed captioning is available, suggest participants use it to follow multiperson conversations more easily.
Also take into consideration the fragility of remote relationships, and pay attention to conversation content. A personal reference that would be ignored or laughed off in person may hurt someone’s feelings if expressed online. Train your team to listen more than they speak and to think before they respond.
Change the Focus
In the end, probably the most effective way to eliminate zoom fatigue is to hold fewer video meetings. When deciding which meeting format to use, think about the purpose of the meeting. Can you get the same result using email or working on a shared document or with a telephone call?
If you do decide it should be a video meeting, can you shorten the time frame and keep participants engaged by using polling, breakout rooms and informal chat activities? As the meeting leader, can you check out the technology before every meeting to minimize the potential for glitches?
Make sure that everyone knows how to operate the technology. Explain how you want them to use the chat feature, Q&A, or the raised-hand symbol during the meeting. Exploiting the potential of these features creates a safer environment for more natural interaction.
Can you create a structured meeting with an explicit agenda focused on participant decisions that move the meeting forward? When there is a reason for engagement and a real role for participants, there tends to be more personal involvement and collaboration.
Or, alternatively, can you schedule optional, unstructured meetings where participants move as they wish between tables in a cafeteria-style room or go in and out of breakout room conversations? By more closely re-creating “watercooler” informality and spontaneity, these meetings often lead to interesting creative conversations, encourage team bonding, and raise individuals’ spirits.
Finally, can you shorten the meeting? While a two-hour, in-person meeting may not seem tedious, its online equivalent does, due to all the zoom fatigue factors we’ve discussed.
It is important to acknowledge the reality that zoom fatigue exists and that it is caused in large part by your brain’s inability to function online as naturally as it does in person. Knowing this, try to create a context for meeting members that makes it less stressful for them to stay present and participate. Use your software’s bells and whistles to make meetings less visually traumatic. Reduce the number of participants. Make the content important by using clear meeting guidelines and explicit agendas. Cut down the number of visual meetings per day. Use email or telephone whenever you can.
 Quoted in HRE’s Number of the Day: Video Meeting Fatigue, https://hrexecutive.com/hres-number-of-the-day-video-meeting-fatigue.
 R. Dallon Adams, Zoom Fatigue by the Numbers: A New Poll Looks at Video Conferencing Engagement, https:// www.techrepublic.com/article/zoom-fatigue-by-the-numbers-a-new-poll-looks-at-video-conferencing-engagement.
 Jeremy N. Bailenson, Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, Technology, Mind and Behavior, 2, issue 1 (Feb. 23, 2021).
 Julia Sklar, Zoom Fatigue Is Taxing the Brain. Here’s Why It Happens, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens (Apr. 24, 2020).
 Kate Murphy, Why Zoom Is Terrible, The New York Times (May 4, 2020).
 J. N. Bailenson, supra note 4.
 K. Murphy, supra note 6.