I love that technology allows me to work with my team (we span four time zones!) and to work remotely with clients. It’s been a little easier for us at Padraig to adapt to virtual meetings during the global pandemic than for some of our clients who are new to working remotely.
But even so, I catch myself really missing working with folks in real life and feeling utterly exhausted after a day of video calls. I know it’s a problem for leaders we coach and their teams, too.
It was a relief to learn that I’m not alone and this feeling has a name: You’ve probably heard the phrase Zoom fatigue in the news and on social media. It’s a big issue for everyone from elementary school students to senior executives. In fact, I’ve read that Google searches for the phrase have increased exponentially in the last few weeks.
Why is Zoom fatigue a thing?
(And it’s not just Zoom – it can be Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype or whatever platform or essential tools for facilitating remote meetings that you choose!)
Experts give a few reasons why being on video calls wears us down more than meeting in person:
- There is pressure to be focused and engaged every minute: If you’re in a meeting with someone face to face or around a boardroom table with a group of folks, you’re not staring at each other and smiling the entire time. Some of us doodle, look out the window, whisper to the person next to us or take a sip of water. But when we’re on a video call, there’s a pressure to focus and be constantly attentive, like some sort of hyper performer. In a meeting it’s easy to say, “Sorry Jan, I was reflecting on something and I missed that last point – can you repeat that for me?” or to let others jump in on something when they can see you’re not going to jump in on the topic – but online there are all sorts of awkward pauses while we wait to see if someone else is speaking, or we all talk over each other as we jump in, unsure whether anyone else wants to contribute. Poor audio quality or technical glitches can exacerbate the strain of listening as we struggle to follow what’s being said.
- Home interruptions can be stressful: At the same time we feel compelled to hyper focus in a video call, real life can make being online stressful. What if a child or partner interrupts? The pets flip out? Someone comes to the door? Trying to appear professional and available while also worrying about factors you can’t control is exhausting (and not something we have to worry about when working at the office!). This level of multi-tasking is uncharted territory for most folks, and it’s not only exhausting, it isn’t working.
- The Hollywood Squares effect: Video calls have created an entirely new level of self-consciousness as we try to compensate for the missing non-verbal cues we’re used to in person. It’s not natural to stare at someone without ever averting your gaze, but on a video call we’re staring at not only other people intently but seeing our own face in a window. A colleague and friend of mine recently said, “Well one thing I’ve learned with being on-screen all the time, I gotta work on my poker face!” It’s extraordinarily difficult not to be hyper aware of how we look and feeling like we can’t look away without seeming disinterested. It feels like everyone is (or could be) scrutinizing everyone else’s expression – and no one wants to appear zoned out for all to see. It feels like staring at the screen is proof of paying attention (and THAT is exhausting!).
So if you’re feeling Zoom fatigue, it’s legit. Psychologists confirm that video calls are more tiring for our brains than talking to people in person. In addition to being emotionally draining, video calls strain our eyes and the variable backgrounds of multiple users on-screen distract our brains even further. For leaders, there’s the added responsibility of keeping your team engaged during remote meetings.
How can we alleviate feelings of Zoom fatigue for ourselves and our teams?
There are several things we can do to help lessen the effects of Zoom fatigue. These include:
- Encouraging folks to turn off their video and just listen if someone is presenting information. This way, the presenter can focus on what information needs to be shared (not worrying about all those eyes watching!) and the users can relax while they watch and listen to the presenter without feeling like they’re performing for the camera.
- Minimize the distractions that you can control. It’s tempting to multi-task, but don’t. Paying attention on a video call is enough! Mute your phone, close the tabs to other websites you might be tempted to peruse or even close the other programs altogether so you can ignore distractions (including your email!) till after you’re done.
(Pro tip: If you have to be on video but don’t want to be constantly distracted trying to ensure you “look good” online – hide yourself so you’re not stressing about how you look to others on the call. On Zoom, you do this by right-clicking on your video. This displays a menu and you choose Hide Myself.)
- Be aware of ambient noise: If you’re on a video call, mute the microphones unless you’re speaking. Hearing people click pens, rustle paper, hit computer keys or tap the table can be extremely distracting for most folks because they’re amplified.
(Pro tips: During a Zoom call you can press and hold the spacebar to briefly unmute to make a quick comment. Letting go of the spacebar re-mutes your microphone. Using a headphone with a mic can reduce background noise for other listeners – and so can speaking in an area with upholstered furniture and a nice bookcase to absorb sound behind you.)
- Use text chat to raise questions. When there’s a group discussion, it can quickly get confusing when everyone is talking. Ask people to raise questions via text and have one person serve as the meeting moderator to facilitate who speaks.
- If closed captions are available, use them. When watching a video, being able to read what people are saying improves comprehension. Bonus: It’s also inclusive if you have anyone who is hard of hearing on your team and helpful to anyone who has a noisy environment.
- Acknowledge the elephant in the room. And by elephant, I mean children. Or other family members. When folks are working from home and sharing space, there will be interruptions. Setting the tone that it’s okay if someone has to step away to deal with a child or you understand if little ones tiptoe into frame will take A LOT of stress off of team members in this situation (and, in turn, a lot of stress off their family members, too!).
- Take little breaks. Rest your eyes by looking away from the screen every so often. You can have a pen and paper so it appears you’re taking notes (that’s still paying attention!). After a call, get up and walk away from your computer for five or 10 minutes so you’re not still staring at a screen. Take the opportunity to read, stretch, go for a quick walk or have a snack. Step outdoors, if you can, for a moment.
- Decide what can be done by email or on the phone. Not everything with a team member or client has to be a video call! It’s highly likely that an email or phone call is sufficient for a simple conversation. If you feel like it would be a welcome break from video conferencing, the other person probably feels the same. Certain types of calls might also feel less stressful by phone for everyone involved. I have a couple of coaching clients who used to meet with me in-person, but when I asked if they wanted to meet by video they quickly said, “Could we meet by phone? I’d welcome the chance to just close my eyes and talk with you without being ‘on’ for our session.”
- Make virtual social get-togethers optional. If your team members are struggling to cope with Zoom fatigue, a mandatory team building event online is going to be counterproductive. Allow people to bow out if it’s too much, or make it clear they can mute their mics or turn off video and you’re not going to ask them about it.
What signs of Zoom Fatigue (or Microsoft Teams Fatigue, GoToMeeting Fatigue) are you seeing in your staff, your colleagues, yourself? What new ideas or approaches could you do differently to model for others and to alleviate some of the pressures associated with video calls? What will you change with your next video call?