Zoom Fatigue Continues, 3 Years Later. How Some Businesses Are Responding
In the spring of 2020, one new term (among many others) entered our collective consciousness: Zoom fatigue.
Coined to describe the exhaustion and worry that comes with frequent video calls, it became a somewhat significant issue during the COVID-19 lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Sure, experts had advice on how to mitigate it (i.e., turn your camera off), but most of us saw it as a temporary inconvenience.
Three years later, there’s ample evidence that remote work is here to stay. With a sizable chunk of employees now telecommuting for the foreseeable future, how can organizations build safeguards to prevent long-term Zoom fatigue?
Video Call Culture
According to a 2022 report by Microsoft, the average user globally saw a more than twofold increase in the number of video-enabled Teams meetings per week in the spring of 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels, with no reversal in this trend during the following six months.
And with many organizations opting for a hybrid model, even in-person employees find themselves spending their time in the office still fielding video calls from remote colleagues. On the flip side, remote employees may find themselves struggling to hear correctly or keep up with the conversation when the rest of their peers are in a conference room.
Unsurprisingly, new research from Reworked’s upcoming State of the Digital Workplace report found that zoom fatigue ranks as the second largest challenge associated with remote work, even above onboarding, culture and productivity.
Melissa Romo, an executive and author of “Your Resource Is Human: How Empathetic Leadership Can Help Remote Teams Rise Above,” said that in many cases, employees experiencing these issues have to self-solve, as organizations aren’t taking the steps to help them.
“My observation is that [a lot of companies] are not really solving for the remote worker because they want the remote worker to come back,” she said. “They’re not looking at how we make ‘remote work’ work.”
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The Causes — and Costs — of Fatigue
What is it about being on camera that stresses us out? Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, identified four potential causes:
- Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact
- “Mirror anxiety” or the strain of having to look at oneself
- Limited mobility in order to stay on camera
- A higher cognitive load in determining nonverbal cues
Amy Casciotti, vice president of human resources at TechSmith, found that when working remotely, employees at her company also felt less confident taking breaks during their day.
“There was this feeling, especially in our management group, that we’re now on for eight to nine hours straight with no break,” she explained, adding that when they were in the office, they may have had more chances to walk around, use the restroom or grab a drink.
“Now, it was just context shifting from one thing to the next, with no chance to just clear your mind for a minute,” Casciotti said.
Romo also called out “the tyranny of being online,” where workers fear coming across as disengaged.
“We know from a neuroscience aspect what drives fatigue, but we also have to look at the idea that if you turn your camera off, you’ve ‘quiet quit,’” Romo said.
Recent studies suggest that zoom fatigue isn’t just an annoyance: it has real emotional and social consequences. One study linked video meeting fatigue to mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Another found that being on camera actually negatively affects engagement and performance.
The impact might also be gendered. A 2021 Stanford report concluded that not only do women tend to have longer meetings and shorter breaks between them, they also experience greater levels of fatigue, caused in part by mirror anxiety.
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Some have taken interesting steps to combat video call overload. Shopify recently urged its employees to turn down meetings, introduced “no-meeting Wednesdays” and eliminated all meetings with over three attendees, encouraging a temporary pause before anyone could reinstate them.
Microsoft also recently rolled out avatars for Teams meetings, which can take the place of human faces.
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Casciotti’s company recently made headlines for an ambitious experiment: they canceled all meetings for a month. The move came as TechSmith’s 300 employees were working remotely during building construction last summer.
“We weren’t saying you can't have any meetings,” Casciotti said. “We just really want to try to not have meetings and see what we can learn from that. Which meetings can be replaced with asynchronous communication?”
The trial had promising results. In addition to promoting greater flexibility during the workday, perceptions of productivity rose by 15%. The company also started holding “flipped meetings” where information was recorded and shared with employees, who then had a chance to provide feedback individually.
Casciotti said that this helped individuals who felt intimidated in meetings or needed additional time to form their thoughts share more thoughtful feedback.
“We have actually found that we're hearing from more voices than we were just having meetings,” she said.
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Building Culture Without Cameras
Following the experiment, Casciotti said that TechSmith employees are more thoughtful when scheduling meetings.
“I think meetings were just the default or easy thing to do before,” she said. “Now, we’re asking ourselves ‘what is the best way to get to the outcome we're looking for?’ and it might not be a meeting. It might be a Slack conversation.”
The company also implemented a five-minute period for chatting at the beginning of meetings, which allows colleagues to catch up or use the time to take a break between calls.
According to Romo, it’s helpful to think of video as a tool to be deployed only when helpful.
“If I'm talking to somebody, and we're trying to solve a complicated problem or there’s a contentious conversation that we need to have, video helps soften the message and helps make sure we understand each other,” she said.
Ultimately, Romo believes that reducing our reliance on video calls starts by building trust between managers and their employees.
“My advice to managers is to stop looking at things like video as a measure of whether or not somebody is going to deliver work for you,” she said. “The measure of whether or not someone's going to deliver work for you is if they deliver the work, right?”
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