A year into this pandemic, I think it’s safe to say that few of us are enthusiastic users of videoconferencing technologies.
Oh, sure, we appreciate them, because they enable us to continue to learn, work, attend virtual events and ‘see’ our friends and family. But do we yearn to Zoom? Like to Skype? Lean in to Teams? I think not.
More likely, you’re tired of forever inhabiting a tiny distracting rectangle and looking at all the others in theirs. Particularly the people who still set their tablet or phone flat on a table and look down into it, providing us with that always-unwanted chin and nose-hair facial tour.
But there's more to Zoom exhaustion than the angle of others' cameras. If you've secretly been wondering whether it's just you that's reduced to a shrivelled, boggle-eyed, emotionless husk after hours of muting/unmuting and trying to unobtrusively pat your hair back into some semblance of visual order, or maybe it is something about the virtual conferencing, well, have I got news for you.
A recently published study from Stanford University – peer-reviewed, even! – may offer some consolation and, even better, some ways of countering and relieving the Zoom strain. It is – drum roll – "the first peer-reviewed article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective", says the university.
According to the satisfyingly academically-titled "Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue" by Prof Jeremy N Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, four elements contribute to our videoconferencing doldrums. (He also notes in the study that he isn't picking on any single platform, but is using 'to Zoom' in the same generic way people use 'to Google' as a generic reference to a now-common activity.)
First, he says that you have every reason to feel tired simply from looking at all those other people (so I’ve been right all along – hell is other people, in rectangles). Excessive amounts of close eye contact is intense. If you are gathered for a meeting, or to give a talk, or to meet family or friends in real life, you look in different directions, do other things such as take notes, or sip a coffee, without everyone’s gaze directed at you, while you look simultaneously at all of them. It’s all the anxiety of public speaking, with all eyes (seemingly) turned your way, even if you aren’t actually speaking at all.
In addition, he says, faces are often enlarged in a way that would indicate intense engagement in real life, which can heighten internal stress levels.
The fix: Bailenson suggests taking your conference application out of full-screen mode and reducing the application window size, so everyone’s smaller. Using an external keyboard also allows “an increase in the personal space bubble between oneself and the grid” of faces.
We are too still during our Zooms, which isn't a normal way of communicating
Second, whatever about having to look at everyone else, having to also look at yourself constantly is fatiguing, he says. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
The fix: platforms should address this so we do not have to see ourselves the entire time by default, he says. But for now, users can check their appearance and positioning, then right-click on their image and choose “hide self-image” (Yup. Who knew?).
Third, we are too still during our Zooms, which isn’t a normal way of communicating. If you’re making a call, or talking to a group, you likely shift about and move around – and Bailenson says there’s also research that indicates people are better thinkers when they move around.
The fix: consider where you videoconference and – again – whether you can increase space between you and the screen. Maybe position your camera further away, so you can get up and move around, doodle or do whatever else you’d normally do in a meeting or gathering. Or just turn the video off at intervals, to give yourself a break from being looked at constantly.
And finally, the validation we've all been waiting for: yes, you do have to work a lot harder cognitively during a video chat than you'd have to in real life, he says. We struggle more to send conversational signals because all of our nonverbal forms of supplementing a conversation are nearly eliminated by the constriction of video.
We are constantly focused on how we are positioned in the video frame. We have to use exaggerated signals such as a more dramatic thumbs up, rather than a slight head nod, to indicate agreement. It’s harder to indicate that we want to speak during a conversation. It all involves more thinking, and yes, it’s exhausting.
The fix: give yourself a few “audio-only” breaks during a meeting, and take time to actually move away from the screen, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless”.
Want to know more? Read the full paper here.