Zoom seemed to be a workplace savior. Whether it was helping deal with quarantine due to coronavirus or the general rise of work-from-home, videoconferencing was supposed to replace confusing conference calls as the communication channel of choice, giving us much-needed face time and even substituting for the camaraderie of the in-person office.
But soon enough, the Zoom fatigue set in. It was confusing at first—after all this time in isolation, aren’t we supposed to want to see and interact with other people? We started finding excuses to skip meetings, hangouts, and even online happy hours with friends.
“Zoom fatigue” has become the term for the mental and emotional drain caused by prolonged videoconferencing. If you’re experiencing these emotions, don’t feel bad: researchers are speculating that videoconferencing is much more neurologically demanding than previously realized.
Cyberpsychologist Andrew Franklin tells National Geographic that videoconferencing tells our brains to seek nonverbal cues in the body language and facial expressions of the people we’re talking to. But the fuzzy, small images of videoconferencing then inhibits those cues. As a result, our brains are overworked trying to focus on the unclear stimuli.
The problem of focus is also multiplied by the number of people in the chat. “We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular,” says Franklin.
Don’t Multitask, Ignore Distractions
In-person meetings have already been fighting the distracting influence of laptops and smartphones for decades, but videoconferencing makes “multitasking” (OK, “not paying attention”) irresistible. Anyone can open a new tab and check email or the news without breaking eye contact with their screens.
Resist the urge to work on other things while in a videoconference. Keep in mind that the idea of multitasking has repeatedly been found to be a myth. Keep your focus on one task before moving on to another.
Keep Meetings Small
Do you work less hard when part of a big team? It’s called “the Ringlemann Effect” and it’s real. It’s easy for us to freeload a bit when we feel like someone else will pick up the slack or if we aren’t even sure what our role is. For this reason, if you are leading a Zoom meeting, try to keep it small. Make sure each participant knows their roles, and engage everyone in the meeting frequently.
Encourage People to Use Plain Backgrounds
Zoom backgrounds have inspired a whole new category of celebrity gawking. But it’s not just bookshelves that draw our attention, it’s everything in others’ environments. Our brains are wired to take in environmental cues, and Zoom meetings scramble these instincts by essentially putting us in all the attendees’ rooms at once. So encourage attendees to make backgrounds as plain as possible, perhaps by choosing a simple virtual background. Attendees will then be able to focus on the people and not their backgrounds.
Just like in a normal workday, breaks are necessary to rest your brain and your eyes. When part of a long videoconference, give yourself periodic breaks. The Pomodoro method suggests five minute breaks every 25 minutes. If you can’t get the meeting organizer to take a coordinated break, go for it yourself. Turn off your camera and keep listening to the audio, but close your eyes or look at a point in the distance. Your coworkers will understand; they are Zoom fatigued too.
Practice Mindfulness in Meetings
It’s unavoidable that our minds wander in meetings. And the harder you try to focus, the more stressed and the less focused you will become. Instead, when you realize you’ve lost focus, gently let go of whatever thought was in your head, and bring your focus back to the meeting. This mental wandering will inevitably happen again, but with practice, you will increase the length of time you keep focus. (This exercise is very similar to mindfulness and meditation practices.)
Use More Phone Calls
The old-fashioned phone call might have been the best option all along. While we lose the nonverbal cues, we gain focus by only having to take in one stimulus. Ask if videoconferences could be phone calls instead, and save the Zoom meetups for friends and loved ones who really do help you relax.