The new buzzword on the street is Zoom fatigue. Trending on Google search since March 2020, the term is still gaining traction today. Zoom fatigue is defined as the mental exhaustion that can occur as a result of online video conferencing.
With the tools at hand today, collaborating remotely with colleagues can be a breeze. Online video conferencing tools are enabling us to have more flexible hours at work and to work from anywhere around the world. Software company Zoom has onboarded more new users in the first 2 months of 2020 as it did in the whole of 2019. According to Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian, daily usage for Google Hangouts in April was 25 times higher than in January.
Although video calls are revolutionizing the way we work and keeping us connected, a new term is trending. Zoom fatigue. Of course, it’s not specific to Zoom. The choices are far and wide; Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, WhatsApp, just to name a few of the main players.
As remote work becomes ingrained in our lives, we are no longer limiting video calls for important meetings. Daily morning catch-ups, team discussions, presentations, 1-on-1 conversations with the boss, Friday night happy-hour, games night, and the list goes on. In 2020 we are doing all of it online.
Although the benefits are far and wide, we’re learning that Zoom fatigue is real. The reality today is that we are not only spending a big proportion of our day in front of a screen, we are spending sometimes hours a day on video calls.
Since the term starting making waves back in March, experts have been weighing in on Zoom fatigue; what is it? What causes it? Researchers agree that it goes well beyond simply having too many meetings. Let’s take a look at the 7 possible main causes of Zoom fatigue.
Missing non-verbal communication
The lack of opportunity for non-verbal communication means we have to pay special attention to other participants on the call to ensure we are on the same page and understanding each other.
In a face-to-face situation, we have extra social cues to guide us. We notice things such as hand gestures, fidgeting, and foot tapping. These cues take very little effort for us to process, it’s second nature to us. But when those cues are missing, the extra effort to gather more information about the discussion at hand can be extremely draining.
The effects of screen-time have been widely researched and discussed over the past decade. We know that too much time in front of a screen can cause strained eyes, blurred vision, headaches, neck, and shoulder pain, sleep issues, and simply affect our overall health.
When we work from an office we have the opportunity to escape our screens when we participate in face-to-face meetings, we can also choose and walk and talk meetings and get some fresh air. But, when we are limiting our interactions with video calls, we end up increasing our screen time considerably.
Lagging connections and technical difficulties
Are you still there? Can everyone see my screen? - We’ve all heard those questions before by now. There are a lot of technical issues that could arise during video calls. Microphone not working, connection lagging and every time you speak you end up interrupting someone else, internet dropping out, etc… A lot of those issues can lead to moments of silence. Although silence is a completely normal part of any real-life discussion, when we experience silence in a video call, we get anxious.
There’s a study that shows that as little as 1200 milliseconds in response delay can make us perceive the person as less attentive and conscientious. Even though that person may just have a technical issue, and it has nothing to do with their behavior, the result is the same.
As well as technical issues, we also have to deal with latency. As latency depends on distance, the further we are from one another geographically to higher the latency.
When latency is higher than 100 - 120 milliseconds, the delay between when you speak to when you are heard on the other side becomes noticeable. Between 250 - 300 milliseconds, the conversation may start to become interrupted and the flow of the discussion is lost.
When we are in the same room of course we hear each other without delay, and this is how our brains are wired to process information. When we add a delay, even if it seems so small, our brains have to work a lot harder to process the conversation, resulting in fatigue.
Simply doing too much of it
Most companies are still learning best practices when it comes to working remotely. Initially, when transitioning to remote work it’s easy to think that since we've gained extra time by not eliminating a commute, or travel from one building to another. Now we have extra capacity, right? The result of that thinking is that many of us might be simply filling our schedules too much.
Not only are we over-crowding our calendars, meetings online simply last longer. By the time everyone has logged into the call and troubleshot any technical issues, it’s easy to lose 5 to 10 minutes. During discussions, having to be careful not to speak simultaneously often means we have to pause and take turns to address certain points which breaks the natural flow of conversation and drags out the meeting considerably.
Heightened self-awareness. Ever catch yourself looking at your own face during video calls? You’re not alone. Most video call user interfaces include the user’s camera view on the call screen. Essentially it’s like we are sitting in front of a mirror, it’s only normal in that case to make extra efforts when it comes to personal presentation.
Anxiety about our environment
When we are working from home, we’re often showing glimpses of our home life to our colleagues. Although this can be a great way to bond with our team and show our human side, it can also trigger a lot of anxiety. Does the lighting make the room dark and gloomy? Will my kids run in and interrupt me? There are usually more variables to contend with in home offices, having to constantly think about things that could go wrong uses a lot of energy.
Singular point of focus
In contrast to real-time meetings, online video calls require us to focus everything in one direction. We need to be looking at the screen and listening in that direction. Once again, this is simply not how our brains are wired. We naturally process information by listening in all directions and shifting our focus left and right organically. Having to focus everything in one direction takes considerably more mental energy.
We’re also required to focus even harder due to potential background noises that are difficult to separate from the sound of the person speaking since it’s coming from the same direction.
Zoom fatigue is real, and it’s here to stay as remote work becomes more and more normalized.
As we get better at working in this distributed way, we’ll keep learning how to balance technology tools and good old-fashioned processes. Perhaps next time you’re planning on scheduling a video call, consider making it a simple phone call instead.