Zoom Video Call Exhaustion and How to Avoid It
With so many of us now working from home rather than trekking into an office, we’ve had to get up to speed on a wide range of technologies. In many cases, we are now comfortably switching between applications or technology platforms that we’d never even heard of before the start of the pandemic. Whether we’re catching up with friends and family, doing online school or actually trying to get some work done, probably the most apparent change is the fact that we’re spending a lot more of our lives in Zoom video calls and conferences.
Phrases like “Let’s do a Zoom” or “We’re using Teams” now slip off our tongues. And while there are numerous advantages of video conferencing, many people are finding themselves in back-to-back video conference meetings, and the term “Zoom Exhaustion” now crops up fairly frequently in normal conversation.
You may or may not actually be using Zoom calls for video communication, but if you’ve spent a day doing one video conference after another, you’ll be familiar with the physical and mental tiredness that this term “Zoom Exhaustion” intends to convey. So, why is it that people have been finding these much more tiring than face-to-face meetings, and are there ways to reduce the level of tiredness that people feel when working in this new way? This article takes a look at a range of possible explanations and makes some practical suggestions.
1. Physical Factors
The first group of factors that people point to are physical. Video communication seems to require people to stay in one position for longer than they usually would in a face-to-face meeting. They tend to fix their position at the start of the call and then to stay quite still for the duration of the meeting. In addition, since they’re now often working from a kitchen table or with their screen on their laps, they’re not sitting in the ergonomically optimised position that their organisation’s health and safety officer would have chosen from them. They may be suffering back pain, neck ache or other generalised discomforts.
Other people point to the intensity of Zoom video calls. If meetings are arranged in quick succession, with no breaks, there is little time to wind down from one meeting and prepare yourself for the next. In typical office life, there is usually a natural break between meetings as people move from one room to another, perhaps with a coffee or chat by the water cooler on the way.
A rather different form of intensity has been researched by Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In some experiments done in 2003, the lab found that the size of the face image on the screen can be important to people’s level of comfort on a call. Being exposed to large virtual faces caused people to physically flinch. In other experiments, the lab found that maintaining direct eye gaze also causes tiredness and discomfort.
3. Looking Good
Many video conferencing applications show the user’s face alongside the face of the others on the call. For many people, this creates a need for us to present an idealised or at least presentable, version of ourselves. Some of our attention is taken up by considering whether we need to adjust the angle of the camera, change the lighting or sit up straighter, and all of this adds cognitive load compared to what we’d be handling in a face-to-face meeting.
Another factor that contributes to exhaustion on online video calls relates to the technical imperfections of video conferencing. Delays and glitches lead to a frequent mismatch between what we see on the screen and what we hear. This makes it very hard to pick up non-verbal clues accurately, and also make it very hard to take turns in speaking without talking over each other.
It is possible to imagine a time in the future when we’ll be able to see a perfect hologram of the people we’re trying to talk to, with no delays between video and audio, when interacting with the hologram will be just like interacting with the real person. But that time is not now.
In 2011, a group of US researchers (1) found that feedback delay “can interfere with the impression-formation process and increase cognitive load, in turn leading to incorrect interpersonal judgments”. In other words, it takes extra mental effort trying to talk to people you don’t know very well through online video calls because your brain is trying to reconcile the different messages it’s getting.
The judgement point is important too. When you’re using video conferencing to talk to colleagues you know really well, or to family and friends you love, you will readily overlook the negatives associated with the technical glitches. The problem comes when working with a team, you don’t know well or when someone new comes into the team. When you don’t know the people you’re talking to very well, it takes cognitive and emotional effort to fight the feeling of mild frustration when the other person interrupts you or fails to get the point you’re making.
A study published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies in 2014 (2) found that the listener wrongly saw delays in transmission of speech as reflecting personal failings in the person speaking, rather than being attributed to the delay.
Another study published in 2013 (3) found that when the conversational flow is disrupted by introducing a delay in auditory feedback, this leads to a reduction in the sense of what the authors call “we-ness”, in other words, solidarity or community. Taken together, these studies emphasise that people communicating remotely using glitchy technology need to put in extra effort to build and maintain positive feelings towards colleagues.
5. How to Avoid Zoom Call Exhaustion
So, what should you do to avoid the exhaustion of Zoom video conferences? Many of the answers arise straight out of the analysis. Schedule breaks. Move around more. If you can, turn off the picture of yourself. Position your screen so that the other person’s face doesn’t look so large. Don’t feel obliged to stare at the screen non-stop. Small changes like these should increase your physical comfort levels and help you feel the advantages of video conferencing while minimising the less than favourable effects.
The dissonance issues require a slightly different approach. To address this, you need to try to reduce the cognitive overload that comes from the delays in transmission or mismatch between verbal and visual. So, you might start a meeting with everyone on the video to say hello and greet each other for five minutes.
Then, turn your cameras off and go to just verbal communication before moving towards screen sharing, writing notes and generally listening, analysing, synthesising and processing the information that you and your colleagues are discussing. Then, go to cameras again at the end of the meeting to say goodbye.
There are other patterns, but your aim should be to reduce the intensity and cognitive overload that you experience during your working day. Maybe run some meetings with full-on video, some with a mix and then, of course, for one-to-one meetings it’s often best to just pick up the phone.
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About the Author
Katy Lindsay is the founder and CEO of Aptimore, an online learning platform that develops management and leadership skills. She has extensive experience in assessing and developing managers and teams in organisations of all shapes and sizes, ranging from SMEs to global corporates.
What is Aptimore?
Aptimore is an online development platform that teaches people all the essentials of collaboration, management and leadership, with a strong focus on raising emotional intelligence. It’s very different from other types of online platforms: firstly because it’s personalised for each individual, taking into account their personality, preferences, aptitude and level of experience; secondly, because it combines a range of different learning techniques to create an experience that’s less like e-learning and more like being coached.
- The effect of video feedback delay onfrustration and emotion communication accuracy – Stacie Renfro Powers, Christian Rauh et al, published in Computers in Human Behaviour 2011.
- Why are you so slow? – Misattribution of transmission delay to attributes of the conversation partner at the far-end – Katrin Schoenenberg, Alexander Raake, Judith Koppe – International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 2014.
- Conversational Flow Promotes Solidarity – Namkje Koudenburg et al, University of Groningen, the Netherlands, 2013
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