Zoom Fatigue Is Why Working From Home Feels So Difficult
In the debate between work-from-home advocates and lovers of office life, zoom fatigue might just be the clincher.
Since the Covid19 pandemic began, a majority of the formal workforce around the world moved their operations to video calls. Weekly management meetings became an exercise in confusion, replete with “Can you mute yourself?” and “My WiFi isn’t working.” For many, working from home, what has been called the “millennial fantasy,” is an illusion that has been shattered during the coronavirus lockdown. Its many pros and cons continue to be debated — having to commute versus being shut in the house; being productive around people versus being left alone; having a structured workday versus having more flexibility. Meanwhile, another player has thrown its hat into the mix: video call fatigue, popularly known as zoom fatigue after the popular video conferencing app. It refers to the unique exhaustion that accompanies spending a considerable amount of time on video calls, a phenomenon that has become ubiquitous among the formal workforce during the Covid19 pandemic.
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Advocacy around work from home presumes that people work remotely almost as efficiently as in person, that employees can still carry out efficient, clear communication using digital communication tools — emails, texts and video calls. However, the zoom fatigue phenomenon shows this might not hold true, after all.
Video calls require the individual, and every other person they’re interacting with, to be confined to a minuscule, often glitching screen. This makes it difficult to have comprehensive dialogue, which requires both verbal and non-verbal communication. In-person, effective communication is aided by human beings’ ability to pick up non-verbal cues — body language, flitting expressions, fidgeting, hand gestures — which is almost impossible to glean from small, decapitated thumbnails on video calls. “For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” cyberpsychology expert Andrew Franklin tells National Geographic.
Our brains end up doing a lot more labor to effectively communicate in the absence of these non-verbal cues, says workplace development expert Gianpiero Petriglieri. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says. On group calls, the labor required to read the room multiplies — feedback that could have been gathered in person using peripheral vision.
This ultimately decreases the quality of communication on video calls. Working extra hard to understand non-verbal cues and constantly failing creates a sense of anxiety and dejection, which can affect the individual’s work performance. Another aspect of video calls that can affect performance is silence, Petriglieri says. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology.” Moreover, studies assessing transmission delay over telephones show that silence, even for as little as 1.2 seconds, is perceived negatively by others, leading them to think the individual is less focused and friendly. Over video calls, a similar transmission delay results in awkward silences that ultimately hamper communication, Katrin Schoenenberg writes for The Conversation.
Last, having to be on camera further adds to feelings of self-consciousness and anxiety. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful,” workplace well-being and teamwork expert, Marissa Shuffler, tells the BBC.
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In addition to hampering work communication, video conferencing has also been found to bring out biases in people. One 2008 study shows that medics attending a video seminar focused more on their feelings about the presenter; those who attended the seminar in person focused more on the presenter’s arguments. Another 2006 study shows reduced mutual trust between the applicant and the judge during immigration court proceedings in Canada that were carried out over video call. Researchers also found that the applicants were more likely to lie and the judges were less likely to spot it.
Combined with mental health issues that accompany being stuck indoors during a pandemic, these video call stressors are heightened. The fact that these calls are mandatory — and that there is no other option for the foreseeable future — has a detrimental impact on employee morale. “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together,” Petriglieri tells the BBC.
Although the Covid19 pandemic has hampered communication among colleagues in many ways, the new norm of video conferencing has been a boon for some. Those for whom in-person communication is overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, like people with autism, can find respite from severe in-person stimulus in video conferencing. This is aided, for example, by the speaker view on Zoom calls, which shows only one person speaking at a time. Regardless of the existing challenges, the technology has also enabled companies to keep functioning, in turn helping millions of people to stay employed in these uncertain times.
Challenges or not, there seems to be no escaping zoom fatigue for the time being. Therefore, experts from Harvard Business Review suggest some short-term steps to help combat the exhaustion — hiding one’s face from view on video calls, taking mini-breaks during calls by minimizing the window, and switching to phone calls or email when possible.
Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle's Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she's interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team's podcast, Respectfully Disagree.