In the words of Prof. Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, ‘just because you can… doesn’t mean you have to’. He is of course referring to video conference calls and doing so in light of Stanford’s new Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue (ZEF) Scale, which tracks the general as well as physical, social, emotional and motivational fatigue that comes with time spent in on-screen meetings. The majority of us are all too aware of this particular side-effect of the pandemic, and news of apps like ‘Zoom Escaper’, a soundboard designed to self-sabotage video meetings, raises a smile. While video conferencing has no doubt been a lifeline over the past year, it has also acted as an advertisement for returning to the office. With a few managerial and operational exceptions, meeting on-screen is simply no replacement for face-to-face and, given that it comes with its own brand of mental exhaustion, raises the question of how we can sustain online communication and make it work for the long-term.
Part of the issue is that the factors behind Zoom fatigue are multi-dimensional, and turning back to the research from Stanford, there are four causes in particular affecting us physically and mentally. These are an excess of close-up eye contact pushing us into a frequent hypervigilant state; a reduction in mobility, with audio and in-person meetings less likely to be sedentary and movement linked with improved cognitive performance; an increased mental load in the absence of many non-verbal cues, which asks us to work harder at sending and receiving signals; and finally, the unnatural habit of seeing our own image as frequently as we do with video calls, leading to increased self-criticism. Incidentally this latter point has, according to plastic surgeons, encouraged a surge of men undergoing cosmetic procedures to make themselves ‘Zoom-ready’. And to add to the strangeness of this brave new world, Gianpiero Petriglier, Associate Professor at business school INSEAD, points out the absence of context we are experiencing with video calls: ‘Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone… that's what we're doing now.’
So, what is to be done, assuming that video conferencing will prevail in the hybrid workplace? We can keep the frequency and length of our video calls in check, scheduling 30-minute rather than 1-hour sessions to establish regular breaks. We can give ourselves audio breaks, which is not just about turning off your camera but actively turning your body away from the screen. To help protect ourselves from hypervigilance, we can reduce the size of the Zoom window and use an external keyboard to create space. We can even provide a little stimulation by moving to different locations in our home. In truth these are small fixes, all of which help, but none are as beneficial as moderating time spent on video calls and rediscovering the benefits of face-to-face communication in terms of relationship building, winning business, idea generation, team motivation, camaraderie and on-the-job learning.
Ultimately, Zoom has become a buzzword of the COVID era and Bailenson is right to point out that it has acted as a scapegoat for our frustrations in this time – while we have limited control over our lives, we can complain about the platforms supporting us. However, the feelings of tiredness, anxiety and burnout resulting from overuse of virtual platforms is a real and completely new psychological phenomenon. We owe it to our employees to address the issue seriously as we move to a hybrid workplace.