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  • Writer's pictureKendra Oliver

Are you feeling Zoom-ed out? You are not alone

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

For many, the virtual work era ushered in by COVID-19 has been exhausting. Discounting stressors related to personal health, public health and politics, an underappreciated source of stress may be mainly related to the enormous increase of videoconferencing we have on our schedules.

Although there are many videoconferencing platforms, Zoom has given its name to the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue,” which refers to the drain people feel after multiple video calls that has become particularly apparent and widespread following the rampant increase in videoconferencing this year. During video calls, our focus and cognitive processing can be pushed to their limits, much more so than during proximal face-to-face conversations. Our neurobiology suggests this fatigue is justified, but the question remains, how can we mitigate Zoom fatigue to retain our productivity and sanity? Here, I break down five of the biggest reasons you might feel fatigued and what you can do to fight it.

1. Visual overload: Why can’t I stop looking at myself on Zoom? What is that cat doing? Is she sleeping?

Research shows that when you are on a video call, you tend to spend the most time gazing at yourself, likely because you are overwhelmed by all the visual stimulation, but extended self-gazing can lead to intense psychological experiences or distress and self-focused attention for some people. Additionally, we spend a lot of time and energy looking at other people’s faces and backgrounds. With video calls, viewers can be overwhelmed with extraneous visual information, increasing the overall cognitive load.

As a participant on a videoconference, you may feel additional emotional effort related to the feeling of having to be "on" to appear interested and invested in the conversation. While nonverbal cues can contribute to management decision making, looking at ourselves, others and their backgrounds is generally stressful and usurp a lot of cognitive energy.

One way to avoid visual overload is by hiding yourself from view. When videoconferencing, you can suggest that all participants turn their videos off unless they are the speaker. This can help participants focus on what the speaker is saying and mitigate potential bandwidth issues for the viewer. If you need to use video, suggest that your group use a calming or plain virtual background to reduce extraneous cognitive load.

If you think that video is an integral part of your meeting, ask yourself why. Whether in the context of a job interview, managing a conflict, or coaching an employee, knowing how to read someone’s body language has been noted as an essential skill. However, many times in both in-person and virtual contexts, people overemphasize nonverbal communication and make decisions based on their interpretations of nonverbal communication. In this manner, nonverbal communication has been shown to propagate intergroup bias, pre-existing stereotypes, and even signal racial bias. In many cases, nonverbal communication by reading facial expressions might reduce your innovation and effectiveness in meetings.

It is also important to note that if someone turns their video off, it does not mean they aren't there or they aren't paying attention. On the contrary, those participants can’t be looking at themselves and might therefore be less distracted and paying more attention to you. For general video conferencing etiquette, it is crucial to NOT call people out for choosing to participate without video. When this does happen, it is often uncomfortable, distracting and generally irrelevant to a meeting’s purpose.

2. Attention spans: What was that again? What meeting is this? When was the last time I stood up?!

We can only look at the same thing for so long! The result is a shorter attention span within virtual settings as compared to in-person experiences. Although most meetings are scheduled to be an hour long, most of your group likely loses focus after the first 10 minutes. A review of the attention limit literature suggests that the most significant factor influencing attention span is the person leading the discussion, indicating that it is not the material but the discussion leader that provides an enriching learning experience. Another aspect of the virtual meeting that impacts our attention is that there may be minimal downtime for those hopping from one Zoom meeting to the next. To make matters worse, online meeting attendees don’t have physical cues that facilitate memory recall.

One underused approach is built-in breaks. For guidance, the Anshel 20-20-20 rule, which suggests that you look at something that’s at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds every 20 minutes of screen time, could be used as a guide. This concept was designed for employees to relieve computer vision stress in the workplace.

Make sure that the technology works beforehand, and that your choice of platform and approach is supported by your own, and hopefully your participants’, connection bandwidth. You have probably heard this a million times, but that doesn't make it any less critical. You can launch a test Zoom meeting anytime using the Zoom test meeting feature. You can also consider creating asynchronous content to reduce bandwidth requirements. Even very slight delays in service connectivity can affect user perceptions, potentially leading others to misattribute slow responding to inattentiveness.

Finally, plan interactive meetings! Interactivity can be as simple as making sure that each person is given time on the agenda or making time to go around the room to share final thoughts. Interactive approaches that can be used in virtual spaces have been outlined by Dereck Bruff and a recent follow-up about what has and has not been working. These resources are extremely useful in thinking about online meeting design supported by cognitive and learning theory. In the end, if you make the experience fun and engaging, you are more likely to have people contribute and participate in a virtual meeting discussion.

3. Backchannels during calls: What did you say? Can you send me the link? Can we talk about this later?

By this point, many people have become acquainted with the chat features in videoconferencing clients. However, the dialogue on the chat "backchannel" can become distinct from the "frontchannel" of audio/visual communication. If someone is unfamiliar or unaware of the backchannel, they could be missing critical information.

Another example of a backchannel is social media, which can be used to access, reflect upon, question, evaluate and disseminate information and scholarship. Twitter, for instance, has become a popular medium for backchannel communication within academic conferences and meetings more broadly.

When you are hosting a meeting, clearly designate a backchannel communication mechanism for side conversations or comments, and communicate it to the group from the onset. Consider assigning one person to monitor the backchannel and chime in if there is a particular point that raises confusion or needs to be clarified. If you want to extend the conversation beyond the Zoom meeting, try out a second platform like Slack, Discord, GroupMe, or Microsoft Teams. Also, take a look at Bruff’s nine uses for the backchannel in education for inspiration.

4. Multitasking: Where did all my time go? Why did I open this tab? What did we talk about again?

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you can do more in less time if you’re working from home or if you primarily interact with others virtually. After all, you have minimized your commuting time and might even be working in your PJ bottoms. But this is not how your brain works. Research has shown that switching between tasks is draining and can waste up to 40% of your productive time. Furthermore, multitasking leads to more significant working memory disruption because of memory recovery issues, leading to the inability to dynamically switch between functional brain networks.

To correct this, next time you are on a video call, close all your other tab or programs, put your phone away, and be present for your current task. As the host, one way you can pull people back is to use a shared group document via Google Doc, MURAL, or Miro. The simple approach of assigning a small task to meeting participants can help reduce their potential multitasking and facilitate engagement. Another approach is to ask questions throughout. You can use PollEverywhere, the built-in Zoom polling feature or even use the Zoom whiteboard to create a quick poll and have people share their thoughts that way.

5. Stop planning so many Zoom meetings!

Many people now feel a tendency to treat video as the default for all communication. But remember that a video call is relatively intimate and can feel invasive at times. We have adapted to the new normal but are now starting to run out of steam (known as the six-month wall for crisis management). Many of us are still struggling and are feeling overwhelmed as the global pandemic shows no signs of waning, so it’s important to think carefully about when and why we meet with each other.

As a community, we can mitigate this challenge by stepping back and rethinking the "meeting" culture. Block full or half days as "no meeting" times to protect your ability to be productive on other tasks. Here is a great resource to help you say no to a meeting — politely — while maintaining accountability.

Switch to phone calls or emails. You could suggest “moving meetings” where participants walk while talking to improve creativity. But also consider these recommendations to help planners add value to their meetings: collaborate with meeting content designers, include interactive experiences or components, allow for synchronous interactions with experts, provide materials in advance, and always make sure to value participants’ time.

Executives and other professionals can spend an average of 23 hours in meetings per week. Since the pandemic radically changed our work lives, it wouldn’t be surprising if this number has increased for everyone. With such a large time investment, it is vital to ask if our current level of videoconferencing effectively contributes to our productivity.

For more tips and tricks on running meetings, you can refer to “The Science and Fiction of Meetings,” this Slack guide for online meeting etiquette, and the infographic on virtual meetings included above. Have more suggestions or recommendations? Tweet me @Kh_Oliver

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