In this new age of working remotely, video calling interfaces are our loyal ally. They have become the glue that holds companies together, allowing teams to virtually check in and communicate with eachother and ensuring projects and campaigns are still getting completed and deadlines still being met. Our workdays are now filling up with multiple video conference variations; a team meeting or webinar over zoom, a presentation on Google Hangouts or an interview with a prospective employee via Skype. This is on-top of the virtual happy hours and trivia sessions people have committed to in their quest to stay in touch with family and friends while socially distancing. On March 23- when the official ‘lockdown’ was first announced in the UK, video conference platform Zoom was downloaded 2.13m times around the world according to App tracking firm Apptopia. This was up from 56,000 downloads a day, two months earlier.
While the ability to video chat has been around for over a decade, the inclusion of constant video calls throughout the day has brought with it a new phenomenon; Zoom fatigue. While Zoom fatigue doesn’t relate specifically to Zoom, it summarises the feeling of exhaustion and burnout people are experiencing after back-to-back video calls. Many workers have started to claim they are struggling to focus or remain engaged when they’ve logged into their sixth video call of the day. Recently, a popular anonymous network for professionals called Blind, created a user-submitted poll to gauge general engagement on video calls. Over 4,600 users responded and more than one-quarter (27%) reported that they are "trying to pay attention, but often zoning out” during video meetings. Additionally, only 10% of Intel Corporation professionals claimed they were actively listening and providing feedback during meetings.
Behavioural experts believe teleconferencing technology can actually overtax our brain. Video calls make it harder to interpret and pick-up on non-verbal cues, which the human brain relies on to process conversations. According to assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University Andrew Franklin, the human brain relies on cues like facial expressions, hand gestures and overall body language to derive additional meanings from conversation. However, a typical video call impairs your ability to pick up and process these cues; if you’re being filmed from the waist up, hand gestures and body language become much harder to detect and if video quality is poor or the internet connection fails, you can’t effectively identify facial expressions. Our brains have no choice but to exert more energy on interpreting a person’s words to effectively receive messages. This is only made harder with the use of multi-person screens, as the brain has to try and process multiple cues coming from multiple people at once.
The awkward silences you can often experience during video calls, or worse still, lags or ‘frozen screens’ due to internet problems, can also have an impact. A 2014 German study found that more that more than 1.2 seconds of silence on a video call, made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused. Frozen screens and lagging can also cause low levels of anxiety as people feel they are being prohibited to share their thoughts and feelings due to a cyber barrier, outside of their control.
Associate professor in workplace wellbeing at Clemson University, Marissa Schuffler, says that an added factor to people’s anxiety, relates to being physically on camera. “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.”
This added anxiety again, can be very taxing on the brain.
While overdosing on video-calls comes with side effects, the tool at least for the immediate future, is here to stay. So, how can we combat ‘zoom fatigue’ and remain an engaged and active participant in our virtual activity? Behavioural experts recommend the following for conducting meetings, catch ups or interviews, and the team at Design and Build have already started incorporating many of these into our own work rituals to improve wellbeing and help maximise effectiveness.
Before any meeting, ask yourself if it needs to be done over video chat. Are there visual elements that need to be shown? Are there multiple people involved? Or is the topic relatively straight forward, and can potentially be ironed out through email, or even a good old-fashioned phone call? An added benefit of phone calls is that they allow you to change up the monotony of being at a desk all day. Professor Franklin says getting out of your ‘designated office space’ and walking while talking can be good for boosting creativity.
As mentioned above, delays in conversation due to screens buffering or freezing can cause anxiety and set the wrong tone for the person on the other end of the conversation. Double checking your internet signal before any video call and being in an area with a strong connection can help alleviate that stress. Furthermore, the easier it is for people to see your face (good lighting, not being too far away or too close to the screen) makes it easier for the brain to focus on those nonverbal cues. This is made even easier again, when there aren’t distractions onscreen – background noises, bright colours or people moving in the background. Limiting the elements that could potentially draw a person’s concentration away from the conversation, will help ensure they remain engaged.
In these unprecedented times it’s worthwhile to take the time to catch up with people before diving into business. Asking direct questions about how people are feeling or what they're doing can help us to feel re-connected with the wider community and maintain trust within the team. It’s also important to try and interact with team members at regular intervals during meetings. Ask questions and use people’s full names to grab attention. Things like ‘James, we’d love to hear your thoughts’ or ‘Yes, Emma that’s a great point’ helps to raise the energy levels in the room, through making people feel recognised and actively contributing to the conversation.
Building a ‘buffer’ in between video calls allows the brain to formally transition from one task to the next, leaving us feeling more refreshed for our next call. Taking the time to do a quick stretch, getting up for a drink of water or doing some quick, light exercises can help us feel more alert and awake as we move into our next call.
Ultimately, connections between people will always be stronger when communication can happen face-to-face. But as workplaces continue to adjust to life in a pandemic, video calling interfaces will continue to grow, so the more we know the effect they have on our brain and interactions, the better we can utilise them.