The four causes of "Zoom fatigue" and their simple fixes
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Even as more people are logging onto popular video chat platforms to connect with colleagues, family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have a warning for you: Those video calls are likely tiring you out.
Prompted by the recent boom in videoconferencing, the scientists examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. Just as "Googling" is something akin to any web search, the term "Zooming" has become ubiquitous and a generic verb to replace videoconferencing. Virtual meetings have skyrocketed, with hundreds of millions happening daily, as social distancing protocols have kept people apart physically.
And this is unlikely to end with the epidemic. The work-from-home pandemic is only just starting.
Published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior this is the first peer-reviewed article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. The researchers have taken the medium apart and assessed Zoom on its individual technical aspects. They have identified four consequences of prolonged video chats that they say contribute to the feeling commonly known as "Zoom fatigue."
Their goal is not to vilify any particular videoconferencing platform—they appreciate and use tools like Zoom regularly—but to highlight how current implementations of videoconferencing technologies are exhausting and to suggest interface changes, many of which are simple to implement. Moreover, they provide suggestions for consumers and organizations on how to leverage the current features on videoconferences to decrease fatigue.
What the researchers say: "Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just think about the medium—just because you can use video doesn't mean you have to," said the lead author.
Below are four primary reasons why video chats fatigue humans, according to the study. TR readers can also complete a questionnaire to see where they land on a Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue (ZEF) Scale.
1) Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense. Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens, is unnatural.
In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don't speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased. "Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population," the lead author noted. "When you're standing up there and everybody's staring at you, that's a stressful experience."
Another source of stress is that, depending on your monitor size and whether you're using an external monitor, faces on videoconferencing calls can appear too large for comfort. "In general, for most setups, if it's a one-on-one conversation when you're with coworkers or even strangers on video, you're seeing their face at a size which simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you're with somebody intimately," said the researchers.
When someone's face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. "What's happening, in effect, when you're using Zoom for many, many hours is you're in this hyper-aroused state," they added.
Solution: Until the platforms change their interface, the researchers recommend taking Zoom out of the full-screen option and reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor to minimize face size, and to use an external keyboard to allow an increase in the personal space bubble between oneself and the grid.
2) Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing.
Most video platforms show a square of what you look like on camera during a chat. But that's unnatural, said the lead author. "In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly—so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback—you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that," he added.
The researchers cited studies showing that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day. "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."
Solution: The scientists recommend that platforms change the default practice of beaming the video to both self and others, when it only needs to be sent to others. In the meantime, users should use the "hide self-view" button, which one can access by right-clicking their own photo, once they see their face is framed properly in the video.
3) Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.
In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. But with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural. "There's a growing research now that says when people are moving, they're performing better cognitively," the researchers stressed.
Solution: They recommend people think more about the room they're videoconferencing in, where the camera is positioned and whether things like an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen will allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones.
4) The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.
The lead researcher notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.
In effect, humans have taken one of the most natural things in the world—an in-person conversation—and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought: "You've got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video,” the researchers said. “If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you're using mental calories in order to communicate."
Gestures could also mean different things in a video meeting context. A sidelong glance to someone during an in-person meeting means something very different than a person on a video chat grid looking off-screen to their child who just walked into their home office.
Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an "audio only" break. "This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen," the researchers suggested, "so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless."
The researchers note that humans have been here before. "When we first had elevators, we didn't know whether we should stare at each other or not in that space. More recently, ridesharing has brought up questions about whether you talk to the driver or not, or whether to get in the back seat or the passenger seat," they explained. "We had to evolve ways to make it work for us. We're in that era now with videoconferencing, and understanding the mechanisms will help us understand the optimal way to do things for different settings, different organizations and different kinds of meetings."
"This could also inform videoconference platform designers to challenge and rethink some of the paradigm videoconferences have been built on," they conclude.
So, what? This is really important information but misses the crucial point. Humans are designed to communicate when physically present with each other. In any videoconference we miss so many clues which will be missed no matter how you structure the technology.
Among these are the pheromones which we give off during various emotional states and which contribute to our sense of trust, our ability to bond and our sense of danger.
Videoconferencing also robs us of the sense of belonging and tribe which are essential to our wellbeing and our happiness.
There’s an old phrase which has been proven true over and over again: No technology has ever increased the sum of human happiness. We constantly have to invent new technologies to make up for the shortcomings and dangers of the ones we have. Zoom is a great example. It tries to make up for the deficiencies of the telephone and for the problems caused by having workplaces a long way away from the home, which were made possible by modern transport technology. We’d all be happier, and healthier, if we lived within walking distance of our work and the telephone, the car, the train and Zoom had never been invented.
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