During this past year of isolation, video-conferencing platforms have become a crucial way to stay employed and stay in touch, but they are increasingly leaving us overwhelmed and exhausted. Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson has been studying the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue and outlines the four causes in a new study. We briefly describe the causes below and provide some of The Grove’s best practices for lightening the mental load of virtual meetings.
EYE GAZE AT A CLOSE DISTANCE
Staring at people directly in the face for stretches of time is unnatural and unsettling. In in-person interactions, the social norm is to look away while still engaging with one another. The norm on a video conference is to stare at the screen in order to appear engaged.
In virtual meetings, your brain is working a lot harder to process social cues and therefore not working optimally. We often miss or misinterpret body language that we would easily understand in an in-person setting. This difficulty, combined with our tendency to overcompensate with our own social cues, adds to the cognitive load.
THE ALL-DAY MIRROR
Self evaluation can be consuming. It’s easy to get distracted by how bad your hair looks or the way your forehead crinkles when you concentrate. This takes precious focus away from what you want to accomplish in your meeting.
Our brains function better when we get opportunities to move. In video conferencing, you usually stay within the camera’s field of view and close enough so that everyone can see your face. This results in a statue effect that is the opposite of how we behave in an in-person meetings, in which we are free to move our heads and bodies depending on who is speaking.
The following are some simple suggestions for combatting Zoom fatigue and running more engaging, productive meetings.
- Reduce meeting time by including pre-work and offline assignments. It is impossible to cram what would typically be a day’s worth of in-person content into a half-day virtual meeting. Take time to plan pre-work, such as data gathering. Send out a worksheet, spreadsheet or a link to an online whiteboard with a set of questions several days prior to the meeting. Reserve meeting time to discuss the answers. Starting the meeting with a jump on the content creates a stronger and more focused container when people gather.
- Manage participant numbers. Set clear expectations about the number of meeting participants that will work for your outcomes. We’ve been in online engagements in which we expected 15 participants and then found that 25 showed up! Without the need for travel, or the restriction of meeting-room sizes, people are more available to unexpectedly join meetings. When the number of people increases in a meeting, the cognitive load becomes harder for everyone to manage, including the facilitator. Focused groups of less than 15 people work the best when decision-making is involved.
- Bring people into an online whiteboard (Mural or Miro). Shift the focus from staring at each other to working together on a whiteboard. Your video-conferencing platform becomes the audio channel and the online whiteboard becomes the space for communication via captured sticky notes of everyone’s thoughts. Online whiteboards also allow for the use of visual templates, creativity with images and icons and, in general, a much more collaborative and innovative meeting. We teach our methods for running meetings this way in our Facilitating Virtual Collaboration Workshop.
- Mix up the interface occasionally. Even though we spend most of our time using online whiteboards in virtual meetings, there are times when it is valuable to exit that interface and invite everyone to just be with each other in conversation with the web cameras on. This shifts the energy so that the “gallery view” is refreshing rather than burdensome.
- Turn off “self view” to lessen mirror stress. Some people turn off their camera to deal with the distraction of watching oneself, but this can make it difficult for the facilitator to track participation. In this case, suggest that participants turn off “self view.” In Zoom, hover over your video square and click the ellipses button in your video to display the menu, then choose Hide Self View.
- Encourage profile pictures for times when cameras are turned off. Participants may turn their cameras off due to personal preference. For example, they may be in other time zones and need to eat through a meeting. This can make it challenging to determine who is speaking at any given time. Encourage meeting participants to add profile pictures to the video conference platform in order to help the facilitator and the other participants match a face to the voice.
- Set up a speaking order. This practice alleviates two potential causes of anxiety: not knowing when you can speak, and not being heard. We like to post the speaking order of names in a chat and use the practice of Go-Arounds to ensure that every voice is heard.
- Get clarity on decisions. Due to the fogginess of social cues in a virtual meeting, a skilled facilitator can help solidify agreements. One way to do this is through a classic facilitation practice called Fist to Five, which gauges the level of consensus for an idea or proposal. Participants communicate their degree of agreement by a show of fingers. This process can be run using “gallery view” and can also be used in an online whiteboard or slide where it is easier to keep a record.
- Plan for breaks and movement. Breaks are key and should be built into every agenda. At the beginning of every meeting, we let participants know when breaks are scheduled, and we honor them even if there is temptation to keep pushing forward. We encourage people to stand up and stretch to keep the blood flowing and the ideas percolating. And we always make it okay for people to do what they need to do while in work-from-home mode. People are under a great deal of stress working through this pandemic. Be flexible and allow participants to tend to children or anything else they may need to do.
You can participate in Stanford’s research study aimed at developing a Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF) Scale.
Since 1977, The Grove has been unlocking the creativity and productivity of groups with our visual methods for meetings, team effectiveness and strategic change. Our services provide an integrated, creative approach to the perennial challenges of connecting people and organizations around a common vision. To engage our consulting or design services or learn more, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.