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(exhausted person on sofa) Remote work’s a failure. We didn’t get a thing done today, ever though we had eight hours of Zoom meetings.

Zoomed out

Zoomed out published on

Zoom fatigue is the real deal. So says the lived experience of countless folks thrown abruptly into working from home by the pandemic — and so say a number of studies.

One of those studies, from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, looked at four factors that might be combining to leave you wiped out at the end of a long Skype, Zoom, Meet or whatever we call a Microsoft Teams video call:

1. So… much… eye contact. Remember in the movie Baby Mama when Steve Martin’s character (the CEO of a chain of Whole-Foods-ish grocery stores) rewards Tina Fey’s character with five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact? Remember how searingly uncomfortable that was? That’s how we live now.
Clip of Steve Martin telling Tina Fey “I want to reward you with five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact”

2. It turns out it’s exhausting to see yourself on-screen all the time. Our monitors act as mirrors — constantly on, constantly feeding any insecurities we might have about how others see us. (In related news, this was the year I discovered one of my eyelids is usually not quite as open as the other one.) Also, as it happens, I have the same kind of relationship with mirrors that caged budgies do: I find it impossible not to stare at the image. (The lab’s founding director represents turning your self-view off, by the way.)

3. Not moving is mentally tiring. Our webcams turn out to be mighty effective leashes; we’re inclined to want to stay within their field of view. (I actually talked a little about why speakers should make that leash longer — a lot longer — in one of my podcast episodes a few months ago. You… are subscribed to my podcast, aren’t you?) Zoom fatigue is partly immobility fatigue.

4. Your mind is working a lot harder in a video meeting. Because we aren’t accustomed (yet) to video conversations — unlike face-to-face encounters, which we’ve been practicing every day for decades — there’s a lot less we can leave up to our subconscious to convey to others and interpret from them. So our conscious minds have to ferry that extra cognitive freight. (In Hanna Thomas Uose‘s post The Trauma of Zoom, she argues our heavy reliance on video communications is actually “low-key traumatic,” with our fight-flight-or-freeze mechanism on constant standby.)

All of which is to say, at the end of a long day of video meetings, put your feet up and give yourself a decent break. Then start thinking about how to make those meetings shorter, more productive, fewer and farther between.

Which brings me (deft segue alert!) to Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive At Work… Wherever You Are, the new book from my wife Alexandra Samuel and Robert C. Pozen. It’s your guide to making the most of the new world of blended remote/office work: not just surviving, but thriving. That includes making video meetings work for you (you might actually look forward to your next one!) And this cartoon’s one of a series celebrating its launch.

(one man to another worried man, in bed) Hey, it happens, and it's nothing to worry about. But I don't think you can blame it on Zoom fatigue.

Video killed the…

Video killed the… published on

For those of us for whom working from home was already our daily reality, there’s a certain “Welcome to the party, pal” quality to hearing complaints about Zoom fatigue. Not to be all hipster about it, but we were finding video meetings exhausting before it was popular.

Part of the problem may be that we nearly always only see each others’ heads and shoulders, and we’ve become used to communicating with each other using our whole bodies. The way we hold ourselves, the gestures we make, that shift of weight from one foot to another: These all communicate volumes, and we’ve shut ourselves off from that.

In a widely-read Medium piece, Hanna Thomas Uose argues that the effect is actually “low-key traumatic”. Without those body-based signals we’ve learned to unconsciously rely on when we talk with someone, we’re never quite at ease, and never really feel safe. The fight-or-flight mechanism is constantly on deck, squirt pistol of adrenaline in hand, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

I found out about her article when I was doing research for an episode of my own podcast about why and when it may make sense to back away a little from the camera, especially if you’re not just a meeting participant but a presenter. Creative use of that space could lend a lot of expressiveness to your delivery — although, as I warn, “The bad news? You’re gonna need to start wearing pants again.”

By the way, everyone talks about Zoom fatigue, but nobody talks about Slack or Microsoft Teams fatigue. Look, I love me a good threaded conversation, and I think Slack is absolutely brilliant in its improvement over email. But between the proliferation of threads, channels, chats and more, I sometimes feel like I’ve traded one inbox for a dozen or more.

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