In 2018, Microsoft performed a study of 14,000 people from seven countries, asking them what form of communication makes them happiest. In-person meetings ended up first with email and chat following. But how did this change during the Covid-19 pandemic when face-to-face interactions were not possible? Video calls helped. In fact, they became truly mainstream. Even if it is only through video, eye contact positively impacts our ability to connect with others. It influences our brain chemistry by increasing the hormone dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. According to Microsoft data, people using their Teams software for communication turned the video on 60% of the time in Norway and the Netherlands, 53% in Italy, 49% in Spain, 38% in the US, and 22% in India. That is a wide range, so why people don’t use video calls? In some countries, it is driven by lower access to devices and slower internet connection that doesn’t allow for a good video experience. More importantly, though, not everyone enjoys video calls as they are simply exhausting.
Dark side of video calls
Researchers from Stanford University suggest that video chat platforms exhaust the human mind and body. Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, examined the psychological consequences of spending hours every day on video chat platforms and identified four consequences of long hours on video that lead to what’s commonly known as “Zoom fatigue” named after a popular video chat platform Zoom. This is not picking on a single platform as it applies across all the video chat applications.
Too much close-up eye contact – a constant gaze at a short fixed distance is intense and tiring. In a typical in-person meeting, you look at different people, take notes, shift your eyes back and forth. On a video call, you gaze the whole time in the same direction, essentially having constant eye contact. It is stressful. What’s more, if you are using a big display and the speaker’s face is plastered across the whole surface, it is uncomfortably big, and you are uncomfortably close. That’s not how you see others in typical real-life daily interactions. Again, it makes you stressed. The remedy is not to use full-screen mode when video chatting and increase the space between you and the screen.
High cognitive load – face-to-face conversations and nonverbal communication is natural to us, but during video chats, we have to work harder on it. You need to ensure that your face is framed correctly. You have to make exaggerated body movements, like nodding, to make sure it clearly transfers over video and is recognized even in a smaller screen frame. You also need to spend more effort to correctly decode what some body movements and gestures actually mean. If someone in a face-to-face meeting glances aside, you know what they are looking at since you can see it too. If they stop looking at a camera during a video call, you have no clue what they are looking at and how to interpret it. To fight this increased cognitive load, learn to switch off the camera regularly.
Watching yourself on the screen is taxing – since you want to know how you appear to others, most video platforms have your picture shown to you constantly. It is like continually looking into the mirror, something you don’t do in real life, and your brain is not used to it. When you constantly see your real-time picture, you tend to be more critical of your appearance and behavior. It is stressful. To remove this stress, make sure your picture is framed correctly at the beginning of the call, and then hide the self-view if the platform allows.
Video chats limit mobility – several meeting in a row will force you to stay in the same place with the same posture. This is far from healthy. In real life, you would move around a bit. Movement improves cognitive abilities, and being stuck on video calls all day long will negatively impact both your body and your mind. To solve this, try to set up your workplace so that the camera is farther away so you can move around a bit. Alternately switch the video off every now and then so you can move outside of its field of vision.
New employees and women suffer more – Kristen M. Shockley and colleagues looked at Zoom fatigue, defined as “a feeling of being drained and lacking energy after a day of virtual meetings,” to understand the camera impact on fatigue. After 1,408 daily observations from 103 employees, they concluded that it indeed is a thing and having a camera on a whole day leads to fatigue. This can be somewhat mitigated by being a more tenured employee, but especially for new members of the team, it is a real problem. They are still building and refining their image in the organization and are more self-aware of how they appear on camera. The same applies to women who may feel the need to meet societal appearance standards that are harsher for women than for men.
Voice-only communication has its merits
Since many of the remedies to Zoom fatigue are switching off the camera regularly, let me point out a significant advantage of voice-only communication. Michael W. Kraus of Yale University suggests that voice-only communication increases empathic accuracy compared with communication across more senses. It allows the listeners to focus their attention on the one channel of communication most active and most accurate in conveying emotions to others. It appears face doesn’t play such a strong role in communicating emotions as voice.
In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that facial muscle movements don’t reliably indicate whether someone is sad, angry, or fearful. The best you can do is distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant feelings, but you can’t use facial expressions to guess what that particular emotion is.
Similarly, in Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell points to studies of tribes in the Trobriands islands east of Papua New Guinea. Anthropologists who studied the tribes found out that when shown pictures of smiling or sad faces and asked to identify which showed happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust, these islanders utterly failed. Compared to Spanish participants of the study who could guess correctly in the vast majority of the cases, Trobrianders did significantly worse. For example, 100% of Spanish children in the study identified face showing happiness as happiness. However, only 58% of Trobrianders did the same. What may be the sign of happiness in one culture may be the sign of anger in another culture. What may be the sign of being scared in one culture might be a sign of aggression in another one.
We can’t rely on reading someone’s emotional state just by looking at their face. So while a video call can help with connection when looking the other person in the eyes, it also distracts us from focusing on their words and vocal cues.
Another approach to fighting Zoom fatigue and cognitive overload comes from Cal Newport. He suggests you do what he calls reverse meetings. It is all about focus. You would maintain official office hours in the form of set times during the week when you are available for video calls, chats, and conferences. During these times, anyone can virtually stop by and have a short chat. These wouldn’t be scheduled half an hour conversations, but only quick one-on-one talks. Ten minutes and you move on.
In this scenario, you compress the total time spend on video meetings significantly. Importantly as you have dedicated time for communication, you also have dedicated time (the rest of your day) for focused work and getting things done.
Putting it all together
Video calls can help create a feeling of belonging, but they can also be a significant drain on your cognitive abilities and lead to stress. Getting sucked into an endless stream of video calls is incredibly taxing on your mind and body. Learn to mix things up a bit. Create a video setup that will help you some movement during meetings, stop scheduling them back to back, learn to switch the camera off every now and then, and don’t enforce video on from those who are not comfortable with it.
Camera-on rules, even if unwritten, may cause unintentional harm, so if you run virtual meetings, keep in mind that we all have different needs and give your team the flexibility to turn the camera on and off as they wish. Variety is a spice of life.
What is your take on the topic? Are you suffering from Zoom fatigue? How do you deal with it? Do you have some tips and tricks for coping with video calls overload and with digital fatigue in general?
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