Beating Zoom Fatigue

April 8, 2021

MWe'll all been there before. 5:00pm rolls around, we log off our last video call of the day, and we're absolutely zonked.

There have been days where so much Zoom has left me feeling too tired for Netflix. And that's saying something.

Lucky for us, Professor Jeremy Bailenson — founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab — recently published new research on so-called "Zoom Fatigue."

This is the first peer-reviewed article looking at the fatigue video calls can cause from a psychological perspective. The paper touches on four main problems and presents corresponding solutions, which I've found incredibly helpful.

Let's give them a closer look.

Ready for your Close-up?

When you're on a video call, you're often only a foot or so away from your screen. This level of eye contact and the size of faces on screen isn't natural, argues Bailenson.

Think about real life. It's pretty rare to be so close to somebody else for a prolonged period of time. As humans, we subconsciously read and process nonverbal cues, and doing this at such a close distance can put us into overdrive.

This is exacerbated in one-on-one calls, where the participant window is generally larger, thus making them feel even closer to you.

A Simple Solution: Get off fullscreen mode

By sizing down your windows, it creates a sense of space between you and the other participants, which can help reduce the psychological intensity of the experience. This is especially in one-to-one.

Man in the Mirror

Imagine if someone followed you around all day with a mirror, giving you a real-time look at your facial expressions as you go about your life.

You'd watch yourself talking through a presentation, sharing tough feedback with a direct report on your team, or simply looking engaged while listening to a teammate talk.

For most of us, this would be exhausting, yet it's pretty much what we're doing in Zoomland if we leave our own camera on. Bailenson suggests that the effects of looking at yourself in a virtual mirror can cause mental fatigue and emotional exhaustion:

“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.”

A Simple Solution: Hide Self View

This is my favorite Zoom hack by far and is normally the first thing I do when joining a meeting. It not only provides some of the psychological benefits Bailenson mentions, but it also helps me feel more present and engaged. Here's how to do it.

Keep it Moving

Let's face it, most of us are way less mobile than we used to be.

Our lives, previously spread across cities and towns, are now confined to a bedroom, a kitchen, and maybe a home office if we're lucky.

There's tons of research pointing to the benefits of movement, not just for our health, but for our creativity and cognitive capacity as well. Just because we're at home on meetings, doesn't mean we need to be completely still.

While at first, it might seem awkward, finding ways to move during your Zoom calls can be incredibly energizing. I've found experimenting with standing desks, external monitors, and brief breaks can make a huge difference to my days.

A Simple Solution: Reset Your Set-Up
Think about your room set-up and see if you can create alternate camera positions. By setting up an external webcam or keyboard, you can increase the distance from your screen and give yourself more mobility to move around your room during a meeting.

(Bonus) 20-minute bell — this is another great practice from SIYLI that I've been experimenting with. Simply use a timer on your phone (I prefer Insight Timer for the dope bell selection) and have it chime softly every 20 min or so. When it does, encourage everyone in the meeting to stand up, move about, and have a short stretch break before sitting down and resuming the meeting.

Cognitive Overload

We naturally look for and process a massive amount of nonverbal cues from others in a normal conversation.

There's the old saying that 80% of communication is nonverbal, and whether or not that statistic is entirely accurate (it's close...), we can all recognize that "picking up what someone is putting down" is more than just hearing the words spoken.

This is tricky on video, where we're often limited to just seeing someone's face instead of their body language, or where we're looking at multiple faces on screen at once.

As a result, many of us try to overcompensate on video, whether that's through an exaggerated nod, a big smile, or an enthusiastic thumbs up. According to Bailenson, this exaggerated nonverbal activity increases cognitive load and can wear us down more quickly than in-person interactions.

A Simple Solution: Audio Breaks

Give yourself "audio breaks" during long stretches of meetings, where you not only turn off your camera, but you actively turn away from the screen and can give your brain a break from the onslaught of nonverbal gestures we're working to process over video.\

Less Is More

Hopefully these tips can help you optimize your existing meetings. But don't just stop there, consider what meetings are actually important and which ones you can live without.

A helpful heuristic I learned from Marissa Goldberg of Remote Work Prep is to ask yourself this question:

Does every meeting on my calendar have the primary purpose of speed or relationship-building?

Meetings are great to make quick progress on a project and need everyone in the same room.

Meetings are also great to build connectoin with your teammates.

But many meetings are better handled asynchronously. If you aren't making a quick decision or trying to build a personal connection, consider other ways to communicate with your team.

Best of luck out there in Zoomland!