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Recognizing Virtual Meeting Fatigue and What You Can Do About It

I’m a new-ish remote worker and, although I love 99% of everything associated with it, lately, after every virtual meeting I have, I’m feeling exhausted and drained.  And not in the normal, everyday work exhausted and drained kind of way.  It’s a peculiar combination of eye strain, headaches, and general malaise that I really only experience after a long day of virtual meetings.  I was curious if others were feeling the same so I did a completely non-scientific study of my remote work friends to see how they’ve been feeling.  Turns out, I’m not alone. 

Workers everywhere are going through a huge transition as the work from anywhere model has accelerated at breakneck speed since the pandemic.  Although some parts of the world are slowly returning to a new normal, many employers, including Tangoe, have made the decision to keep the work from anywhere model while some organizations are electing to use a hybrid model of partly remote, partly in-office.  A recent “Future Workforce Pulse Report” by Upwork predicts that by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely — almost a 90% increase from pre-pandemic levels.  

So Many Virtual Meetings

The expectations related to being employed haven’t changed, regardless of which model you’re working in.  Employers still expect collaboration, group project discussions, and for work to be done on-time and with quality.  This means meetings and lots of them.  Before the pandemic, roughly two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face.  Not anymore. 

If it feels like you’re having more meetings than it did when you were in the office, that’s because you are.  In fact, the number of meetings per day has actually increased since many workplaces went completely remote in 2020.  Zoom went from a total of 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020 (Those are not 300 million individual users. If you had five Zoom calls in one day, you count five times.)  

I can no longer swivel my chair to bark at a coworker about something or stroll down the hall to confer with my boss.  Simple questions that were easy to get answers to (in theory) are now turning into meetings.  Even getting someone to agree to a meeting can be a task in itself as you attempt to track them down.  You no longer have the advantage of in-person nagging.  Virtual work means extra work.   

Virtual Fatigue Causes

Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms.  In the first peer-reviewed article focusing on virtual fatigue from a psychological perspective, published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior, Bailenson has taken the medium apart and assessed virtual videoconferencing on its individual technical aspects.  He has identified four consequences of prolonged video chats.

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 video 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.

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, Bailenson said. “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.

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.

The cognitive load is much higher in video chats. 

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.  This manifests itself as feeling the need to always to be “on.”  Many organizations also have specific rules about where someone can hold a video conference and what should be worn.  Coupled with home life interference, this can create cognitive stress.  

Recognizing Virtual Fatigue

Work burnout is nothing new.  The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger.  He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, such as healthcare.  Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions, or for the dark side of self-sacrifice. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.       

It’s important to distinguish between burnout and exhaustion.  Exhaustion is a normal reaction to stress.  Burnout is far more than feeling blue or having a bad day. It is a chronic state of being out of sync with your job, and that can be a significant crisis in your life.  Other symptoms of burnout can include:

  • forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty maintaining relationships and being present with loved ones
  • frustration and irritability with co-workers
  • physical symptoms, like muscle tension, pain, fatigue, and insomnia.

Virtual fatigue has very similar ways of showing up, with the primary difference being that it actually contributes to overall burnout.  It also tends to be linked to an overuse of virtual meetings. 

  • Do you find yourself avoiding, canceling, or rescheduling video conference calls?
  • Have you noticed that after a meeting, you’re incredibly tense or tired?
  • Has switching to virtual meetings impaired your ability to multitask or handle your work responsibilities?

All of these are potential signs that virtual fatigue has set in. 

Coping Mechanisms

Whether we like it or not, virtual communication is not going away.  But there are ways you can combat the fatigue, take back control of your workday, and not feel so…blah.

  • Minimize and go external. 
    • It’s tempting to have the virtual platform up and running and in your face at all times but the intensity is too much.  Human beings should only hold eye contact for approximately 3.3 seconds so take the meeting out of full-screen and reducing the size of the window to minimize face size.  Also get in the habit of utilizing an external keyboard to give your fingers room to roam and to increase the personal space bubble between yourself and the screen.
  • Ditch the mirror.
    • Do you need to see yourself frowning or nodding or yawning on a screen?  Me neither.  Use your platform’s privacy settings to hide your self-video.  This will help with engagement and lessen the creep factor of constantly seeing your own teeth.  In meetings where cameras are unnecessary, turn it off. 
  • Think about your space and get up.
    • If you’re constantly having to shift your work from the kitchen table to the couch and back to the kitchen table, this takes away from your productivity time and increases stress.  If at all possible, dedicate a space to work that allows you the freedom to spread out and be as comfortable, and focused, as possible.  And, don’t forget to get up once in a while, including during meetings if you’re able.
  • Give yourself a break.
    • During long stretches of meetings, Bailenson suggests giving 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 so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”
  • Ask yourself “does this need to be a meeting?”
    • Not everything requires a meeting.  If it’s a simple request or ask, send an email or instant message.  Chances are your colleagues are just as burned out as you are and would appreciate the virtual break. 
  • Make time for in-person communication with the people you love and care about.
    • If you live in a part of the world that is slowly reopening, make a date to have an in-person chat or meeting with a friend or loved one.  It’s more important than ever to maintain the intimacy of our close relationships.

Be Prepared to be Flexible

The world is changing and transforming at a dizzying pace and adapting to it all can be stressful.  It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing virtual fatigue or eliminating unnecessary meetings.  Organizations are expected to flex and scale as part of their business strategy but all of us should adopt this mindset as well.  We have to adapt and we have to grow and that means figuring out what works best for you. 

Experiment with different spaces in your home to work or with different meeting strategies.  Research best practices on remote work, home office setups, and virtual meetings and put that into practice.  Remind yourself that you’re human and working like a robot is not conducive to productivity or being engaged.  Develop your skills in recognizing virtual fatigue and make an effort to put yourself first every once in a while.