As I've been talking with clients, friends and family over the past week, one theme I keep hearing is how exhausted everyone feels all day, every single day. I'm glad I wasn't the only one.
Hearing that others were feeling it too got me thinking about what many of us are collectively experiencing as we're settling into work rhythms that include non-stop virtual meetings.
The newness and novelty has worn off. We aren't quite as amused by quirky Zoom backgrounds as we were four weeks ago. We aren't as thrilled that we get to wear pajama pants and dress shirts to meetings anymore. We've attended enough virtual happy hours to come to terms with how much we miss being physically together with our colleagues, friends, and families.
Almost all of our personal and professional interactions are happening online.
Our religious and worship services are happening online. Our birthday parties are happening online. Our kids' classes are happening online. We're getting our news and entertainment online. The boundaries between our personal and professional lives feel non-existent at times as we live out almost all aspects of our lives online.
So what can we do to alleviate some of this exhaustion we feel? How do we continue to work together to reach goals, meet our social and relational needs, while also acknowledging we are experiencing Zoom fatigue?
In this blog I discuss reasons we're feeling fatigued and provide practical and actionable strategies you can implement today to lessen the strain we're all experiencing.
3 Reasons We're Experiencing Zoom Fatigue
#1 - We're Scheduling Too Many Virtual Meetings
Several weeks ago when most of us were thrust into the work-from-home life, we weren't sure how we'd transition our work processes and rhythms. We were quick to adopt virtual meetings as a way to stay connected to one another. This was the right thing to do at the time. We were in crisis-mode and we had to adapt quickly to be able to stay in touch and get our work done.
But now the dust has settled and we're experiencing the effects of all those virtual meetings. Before COVID-19 disrupted our work rhythms, multiple studies showed that most Americans were already spending at least 7 hours each day in front of a screen. I don't know about you, but I feel like that number has almost doubled for me in the past month.
And if we're in front of a screen for too long we can experience:
back, shoulder and neck pain
eyestrain and/or blurred vision
Yes to all of the above for me.
As leaders it's crucial that we constantly ask ourselves what our team members need and what challenges they're facing. Then, we need to adapt.
And right now, we're at the point where we're scheduling too many virtual meetings, and they're exhausting our teams. We need to slow down a bit.
Having taught online courses for 10 years at a large public university, I learned very quickly that face-to-face scheduling is not the same as virtual scheduling. If I made a 45-minute lecture video for my online class the engagement statistics were terrible. There were far fewer views in general and most of the students who did view them were only watching for 10 or 15 minutes.
Once I started making shorter, 15-minute videos, video views and engagement skyrocketed. I learned that I could cover the same amount of content with students if I broke it up into smaller, bite-sized video chunks.
The same principle applies to our virtual meetings. We've got to get creative about different ways to distribute information, engage in discussion, and make decisions together. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water, though. We will likely still need to schedule Zoom meetings. But we've got to consider the impact that too many meetings are having on our teams.
Try This: Schedule Smart
Don't schedule back to back meetings. It's easy think we're prioritizing efficiency when we schedule meetings back to back. But our brains and bodies need time to reset and refresh so that we're ready to go for the next task. So give yourself some time to get outside to walk around, grab a drink of water, use the restroom, and prepare your notes for the next meeting.
Schedule meetings for shorter amounts of time than you would in your regular rhythms. If your weekly management meeting was one hour long before COVID-19, I'd recommend scheduling it for 30 minutes during this season. This will mean that you'll have to determine the agenda items that need to be discussed or debated the most. Everything else might need to be covered in a shared document or in the next meeting.
Take scheduled breaks and announce them at the beginning of the meeting. If you must schedule longer meetings, take a few breaks. At the beginning of the meeting, let everyone know when you'll break so that they're less discouraged about the length of the session. During the break, everyone can turn off their camera and mute themselves so that some good boundaries are created, even if only for 5-10 minutes.
#2 - We're Processing Too Many Cues at Once
When we're in a virtual meeting, we have to work harder to process all the visual, auditory, and environmental cues coming at us at once. It's a stimulus-rich environment in which we are fighting to concentrate.
We're trying to pay attention to Jessica from accounting while she gives a report on last month's financials, while also monitoring Slack and email, while also listening to our kids in the other room "working" on their remote instruction. Meanwhile our pets are begging for our attention and we're staring at the dirty laundry on the couch.
Unlike in face-to-face meetings, we feel the need to stare at the computer screen and appear very engaged when we're on camera. If we look off into the distance to think, as we might do in a face-to-face meeting, we might appear rude or bored. If we need to step out for a minute to use the restroom or break up a fight between our kids (or maybe that's just me?), we're worried that we might come off as disengaged.
Another aspect of virtual meetings that make them exhausting is how unnatural they feel, communicatively speaking. In most face-to-face conversations, we engage in natural turn-taking behaviors. Response latency, or the time interval between when one message is sent and the reply is sent, feels rhythmic. We often use cooperative overlap, which is what happens when one speaker talks at the same time as another speaker to demonstrate interest or support.
But in virtual meetings, these behaviors are interpreted very differently. We feel tentative about when we should begin speaking, when we should reply to a question or offer an idea, when we should interrupt to ask for clarification, or when we should yield the floor to someone else. Sometimes we awkwardly begin speaking at the same time. Sometimes there's a lot of silence. And research shows that our turn-taking behaviors in online environments impact the perceptions that others make of us. In fact, when we have a longer response latency in conferencing environments, we're perceived by others as less attentive, less friendly, and less conscientious.
Try This: Decrease the Cues
Acknowledge and Embrace the Awkwardness. It's incredible what communicating and managing expectations can accomplish for teams. As the leader, if you'll speak to the reality your team members are experiencing, you increase their perceptions of psychological safety. Remind them of some of the challenges you face in virtual meetings, give them permission to feel awkward, and make light of the unnatural turn-taking behaviors that will happen.
Give everyone permission to stay off camera if desired. This will decrease the amount of visual and nonverbal cues everyone has to process. Sometimes it will be important to be on camera, but it isn't always necessary. For example, if it's the fourth meeting of the day, consider asking everyone to start with video on just to say "hi" but then let them know when it's okay to turn it off.
Choose 'Speaker View" so that only the person who is speaking is visible on your screen. If you are trying to monitor 15 of your colleagues on a screen, that's a lot of visual and nonverbal cues to take in at once. If you only have to monitor one person at a time, you're simplifying what your brain and eyes are processing.
#3 - We're Self-Monitoring More Than Ever Before
When we're in face-to-face meetings, we don't have a live shot of ourselves to watch in the corner of our view. In virtual meetings, we're engaging in much more self-monitoring than usual. Self-monitoring happens when we're conscious of our self-presentation, our appearance and our nonverbal behavior.
When we can see ourselves on camera, we see ourselves as our colleagues see us, which makes us more attentive to self and less focused on the content of the meeting. We end up staring at ourselves the entire time and thinking thinks like:
"My lighting isn't good enough."
"I'm slouching, I should sit up straight and tall instead."
"I should hang something up on the wall behind me."
"My hair looks terrible today."
"Is that really what I look like when I talk?"
"I should look more engaged probably."
"I never realized I nod so much."
In addition to the increase in self-monitoring behaviors that happen when we're in a virtual meeting, we also can't help but feel like we're giving a presentation. As a former Public Speaking Professor of 14 years, I can tell you that students often reported feeling just as anxious when delivering presentations in video conferences as when they had to do it in face-to-face settings.
When we're anxious about communicating, we often get in "fight or flight" mode. For many of us, we get an adrenaline rush, our heart rate and breathing increases, and stress hormones such as cortisol are released. When we're finished speaking, we often "crash" and feel exhausted. If this is happening multiple times each day, albeit on a smaller scale, it still adds up to an exhausting day.
Try This: Take the Focus Off of Self
Hide yourself from your own view. When you're expected to be on camera, make sure you're visible but then consider removing the temptation to engage in too many self-monitoring behaviors. If you're in Zoom, you can right-click your video to display the menu and then choose "Hide Myself." A few years ago before I discovered this option, I would put a sticky note over my face on my computer screen to keep from watching myself the entire meeting.
Consider"phoning it in" instead. If possible, join a few of your meetings via phone instead of on camera so that you don't have to monitor your nonverbal behavior, with the exception of your voice of course.
Set yourself up for success. Create a workspace you feel comfortable in and create a simple backdrop that won't distract you while you're on camera. Keep a good light source behind your camera so you are well-lit. Try to get your camera eye-level so that you aren't watching yourself at an angle that feels awkward. For example, if I'm using my laptop on a Zoom call I almost always place several books under it first.
Knowing why we're feeling this fatigue is a huge step in the process of alleviating it. As you continue to assess and adapt in your teams and workplaces, make sure you're taking the time to talk about how everyone is processing the changes. Ask smart questions and then listen.
It's my hope that the strategies outlined above help you begin to have these conversations with your team members. Thanks so much for reading. As always, we're rooting for you.
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