Online meetings have been on the rise ever since the pandemic compelled workforces to switch to remote working. Though the communication medium was not new, companies resuming operations amid the pandemic sought the help of audio and video conferencing technologies to stay connected to their distributed workforce.
However, as companies began to settle into the new remote workplace setup, the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ became increasingly vogue. Though the name was derived from the use of the cloud-based communication platform- Zoom, the phenomenon collectively applied to widely used online meeting platforms such as – Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet and many more.
According to the Psychiatric Times, the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ is described as ‘the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication.’ With remote working being inevitable in the new world of work, online meeting fatigue has become a closely associated phenomenon among employees.
Is online meeting fatigue a serious problem in workplaces today?
Yes. Several studies reveal that online meeting fatigue has been a widespread problem amongst remote working employees during the pandemic. The problem may continue to persist in future workplaces as long as online meetings exist.
Online meeting fatigue has a severe impact on employee health and business productivity. Some of the common issues with online meetings in a remote working environment include:
Difficulty in reading body language – During the pre-pandemic era. in-person office meetings offered the advantage of face-to-face interactions, beneficial to observe the body language of meeting participants.
On the contrary, online meetings provide a limited view of the speaker and others in the meeting. For example, a manager announcing an important team decision during an online meeting cannot read the body language of the participants to understand if the message conveyed has been well-received or not.
A recent study by Stanford University revealed that virtual meetings require conscious effort from the participants to communicate due to the absence of non-verbal cues that are normally tangible in a face-to-face meeting.
Mental stress and anxiety – Back-to-back virtual meetings can be exhausting at many levels for the speaker and the participants too. Video conferencing calls create stress and anxiety among employees. Video calls force employees to put up a composed demeanour continuously under a constant camera gaze. Many a time, this can cause performance anxiety- tiring employees both mentally and physically after the meeting.
Studies have also revealed that the close-up view of participants can trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response from the brain. It is a normal human tendency to be overly alert in a situation where they are in close proximity to unknown people.
In addition to that, the cognitive load of having to interpret and also give out non-verbal cues is stressful and makes the brain overwork unlike in a physical office meeting setup.
Delays in reaction and response– Computer-mediated communication has been instrumental in removing geographical barriers in communication. However, image and audio latency can disrupt the uninterrupted flow of two-way communication. Unlike in-person meetings, virtual group discussions can be strenuous if there is poor network bandwidth. Moreover, the delay in reacting or responding can reduce the quality of group communication during a virtual meeting.
Eye strain and posture issues – Workplace wellness experts have pointed out that long hours of meetings result in severe eye strain, posture problems and related health issues caused due to physical inactivity.
Most employees in the remote working model are also not equipped with an ergonomic home office setup that corrects their posture and provides an appealing space to work. Thus, employees have reported back and neck aches.
Likewise, continuous digital eye strain has caused blurry eyesight and migraine issues. The decline in physical activity has also resulted in sleeplessness and disinterest in other activities.
How to overcome online meeting fatigue in a remote working environment?
Here are some tips to enhance the quality of virtual meetings and prevent it from being a tiresome routine in the workplace:
1. Conduct short and organized meetings
- Keeping the attention of the audience is one of the many challenges of an online meeting. Hence, meetings must be kept short and relevant to the subject of discussion. The following practices must be followed for a good online meeting experience:
- While online meetings are essential in bringing a team together in a remote work setting, they must have a pre-defined purpose or agenda. Managers must have a clear idea of what the meeting is about. Employees must be kept engaged with maximum voice resonance and powerful message delivery.
- Focus on what needs to be emphasized during the meeting.
- Organize any documentation or presentation that you need to display during the meeting ahead of time.
- Do a test run of the meeting software and ensure the highest network connectivity to avoid frequent disruptions during the meeting.
- Stanford’s study on ‘Zoom Fatigue’ revealed that video-conferencing apps tend to make meeting participants focus on themselves instead of the speaker in the meeting. This excessive self-attention makes them over-conscious of their physical appearance and behavior during a virtual meeting. Spending hours and hours viewing one’s onscreen image during a video call causes negative emotions and lowers self-esteem. The findings of the study revealed that the ‘mirror anxiety’ that came with consistently being in the field of view during an online meeting affected women more than men.
- 2. Turn off the Self-View during video conferencing calls
The ‘Hide Self view’ option is an ideal solution to combat this problem. With this feature, users can remove their onscreen view window from their field of visibility. However, the feature allows you to be visible to other meeting participants. This helps participants relax and focus on the meeting.
3. Take small breaks for physical movement and eye relaxation
Sitting for long hours in the same position staring at the screen is a counterproductive way to approach meetings. Back-to-back online meetings are damaging to the employee’s health and also make them lethargic. After long online meetings, take regular intervals to engage in some physical movements to stretch rigid muscles, and pull away from the constant gaze of the virtual camera. Breaks as short as 5-minutes can relieve employees of the cognitive and physical strain of virtual interactions.
To prevent digital eye strain, the American Optometric Association recommends using the 20-20-20 rule to reduce excessive exposure to digital displays. The rule suggests that a person must look away from the screen every 20 minutes at an object distanced 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
4. Avoid task-switching during a virtual meeting
Unlike in-person meetings, online meetings give employees an opportunity to attend to other tasks while passively listening. With videos turned off, employees are free to switch between tasks while a meeting is progressing in the background.
A study by Chanty has shown that multi-tasking decreases productivity by 40 per cent. However, a recent Forbes article argued that multi-tasking is a myth.
Instead, it is task switching that takes place. Task switching can be distracting and more prone to errors. It can also negatively impact employee efficiency and productivity. Tuning into an online meeting and checking emails simultaneously can be too much work at once – leading to fatigue and stress.
Turning off notifications during meeting hours is an effective way to curb distractions during virtual meetings.
5. Use alternative modes of communication
Apart from video conferencing, managers and employees can use other communication modes for discussions that do not require their real-time presence or their cameras to be switched on.
Audio calls or phone calls are also a preferred medium of communication as employees need not be worried about their meeting desk and background or even be under the constant gaze of the camera.
Using asynchronous communication such as instant messaging apps or emails can also reduce the necessity of online meetings. Managers can brainstorm ideas using virtual collaboration tools.
Pre-recorded asynchronous videos are also an innovative way to pass on critical information to a large group of employees to explain tasks or for training purposes.
6. Have friendly talk sessions and zero–meeting days
Lack of meaningful connections is a prominent problem reported by remote working employees. Using virtual meeting platforms for off-work conversations and networking can help in reducing the anxiety that comes with attending online meetings with people you don’t know well. Small talk helps in promoting employee engagement in meetings, which means it makes space for more innovative and creative ideas.
No-meeting days are also important so that employees can focus on work to be done without other distractions. This helps employees to meet deadlines without the pressure of having to work after a tiring meeting.
Overcome online meeting fatigue to improve virtual team collaboration
As remote working becomes a new norm, virtual meetings are an integral part of team communication. Team leaders and employees must ensure that online team communication does not become mundane or stressful by adhering to basic online meeting etiquette. Moreover, before calling for a meeting, it is always better to question – ‘Is an online meeting necessary?”
Improving the quality of online meetings can have a positive impact on team performance and business productivity. Indirectly, it also motivates employees to actively involve themselves in virtual meetings and contribute to team goals effectively.