COVID-19 pandemic has moved our lives into a virtual space. And it looks like we'll be there a while.
Most of us tend to be exhausted by online meetings, but we don't know why. The tiredness doesn't feel earned. We're not flying an airplane, teaching toddlers or rescuing people trapped in burning buildings. Still, by the end of the day, the feeling is so universal that it has its own name: Zoom fatigue.
Spending hours every day on Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or other video-calling interface has a real psychological impact, said Stanford University Prof. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
Bailenson, who recently published the first peer-reviewed article to analyze Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective, singles out four major reasons why video chats make us so weary. His research, which was published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior, also includes some fairly easy fixes.
Too close for comfort
Think of the normal meeting. You might be looking at the speaker. Or maybe you're noticing those fancy new window blinds, your colleague's weekend tan or the traffic on the streets below. But on Zoom calls, everyone is staring at everyone, all the time. And our faces can appear too large.
When so many faces are so close to ours in real life, our subconscious takes it personally. It tells us: They either want to pick a fight, or have sex. "What's happening, in effect, when you're using Zoom for many, many hours is you're in this hyper-aroused state," according to Bailenson.
Solution: Exit out of the full-screen option to shrink face size. Use an external keyboard to create a comfortable space between yourself and the masses.
We hate watching ourselves
For most of us, a quick morning glimpse in the mirror is all we need. After hours of self-gazing, we turn critical. We notice that sloppy shave job. The overdue haircut. The dead plant over our left shoulder. Or maybe the light's all wrong, casting deep shadows, making us look like a member of the witness protection program.
"It's taxing on us. It's stressful," said Bailenson. "There are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror."
Solution: Use the "hide self-view" button, which you can access by right-clicking your photo once your face is framed properly in the video.
We're trapped in a chair
Humans are restless creatures. During phone calls, we like to wander around. Even if we're stuck at a meeting at a conference table, we find ways to stretch — leaning back in a chair or gazing pensively at the ceiling. But with videoconferencing, we're limited by the camera's narrow field of view.
This is both physically and mentally deadening. "There's a growing research now that says when people are moving, they're performing better cognitively," Bailenson said.
Solution: An external camera farther away from the screen lets you doodle, release neck tension, do a seated twist or fidget, just like you do in real meetings. Turning the video off periodically during meetings is a good ground rule to set for groups. It creates a brief nonverbal rest for everyone in attendance.
We can't see body language
At their best, meetings can act like subtle symphonies, with everyone harmonizing their postures, laughter and knowing glances. We read each other's cues. Conversations have rhythm.
Not so with Zoom. There's a rigidity, with only one speaker at a time. We must listen closely for sentence completion, so we don't interrupt. To make an important point, we must add drama and flair.
"If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up," said Bailenson. "That adds cognitive load as you're using mental calories in order to communicate."
Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an "audio only" break. Don't just turn off your camera, turn your body away from the screen. Gaze at that wall that needs painting, the birds outside the window, the books on your shelf. Or even get up and walk away for a few seconds.