A sense of dread sets in as you wait for your fifth Zoom call of the workday to connect. In no time, your smiling face will be on screen and your meeting can begin. You look great, but you’re feeling fatigued and anxious. You ask yourself: is being on camera really necessary? For these last few seconds, you let your eyes wonder and stare blankly away from your screen to relax.

In the COVID-19 era, business has overwhelmingly adopted the videoconference as a substitute for in-person meetings.  If we would normally meet in a conference room, why would a video call be any different? We seem to believe that if we can see and talk to each other easily, we should be able to continue our pre-existing ways of working. 

As organizations evolve and working-from-home becomes a more permanent fixture, we need to be aware of when and why we should take a video call instead of talking by phone or simply sending an email.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Ever had an e-mail misinterpreted? You’re not alone. Video increases the amount of information we share when we communicate.  It supports visual cues such as body language and facial expression which is missed over the phone or by email.  Researchers believe that these non-verbal signals accounts for more than 50% of the way we communicate with each other. (Mehrabian, 1971) It’s no wonder that we instinctually use video to make our communication more efficient and accurate.

Video can also improve communication by adding a greater sense of “social presence”. Roughly defined, it’s the feeling of community you experience during communication.  The theory says that the “richer” the communication method (i.e., video vs. audio vs. text) used, the greater our social presence will be.

Cut! That’s a Wrap, Folks.

So why then are we tired and frustrated with our online experiences? Any Zoom or Microsoft Teams user knows that there is a small but perceptible difference in the way we conduct our discussions online rather than in person.  Sometimes online, it just doesn’t seem as effortless.  While video does give us the ability to see our colleagues and process some of their non-verbal cues, it can also lag or be distorted. To compensate for the delay, our brains are working overtime causing anxiety and fatigue. Researchers have dubbed this new phenomenon “Zoom Fatigue”.

“We’ve evolved to get meaning out of a flick of the eye. Our species has survived because we can produce those signals in a way that’s meaningful. Zoom smothers you with cues, and they aren’t synchronous. It takes a physiological toll.”

– Jeremy Bailenson, professor and director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Staring at your webcam during back-to-back meetings, compensating for delay, and interpreting a “Brady Bunch” grid of facial cues is an easy way to become fatigued. In fact, it’s a lot like the experiments researchers use to intentionally exhaust participants. They do this to see how long people persevere and what mistakes they make. When we focus on that small black webcam in meeting after meeting, we move closer and closer to our limit of vigilance.  Eventually we get distracted which can lead to mistakes, and in the worst cases, personal embarrassment.

Just as most of us wouldn’t watch four feature films back-to-back, we aren’t built to spend a full day in video meetings.  While there isn’t always a substitute for videoconferencing, there is a strong case for limiting our meetings to prevent us from making careless mistakes and feeling burnt out.

The Show Must Go On…

Despite the ups and downs of videoconferencing, people still value online communication, and interaction is still the most important use of the Internet (Kraut et al, 1999). As we adapt to our new reality, our teams and organizations need to learn that Zoom and other services should be used to enhance and not replace our other methods of communication.  Next time you book a meeting, ask yourself if a sense of community is a required outcome. Perhaps you would prefer that the participants place their vigilance on the content instead of the camera?  Choose your medium wisely and set expectations ahead of time – your team will thank you.