Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Ugly as Night and Taxing Of Brains: Death by a thousand meetings: How to reduce video-call overload


Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here's why that happens.

Video calls seemed an elegant solution to remote work, but they wear on the psyche in complicated ways.

Jodi Eichler-Levine finished teaching a class over Zoom on April 15, and she immediately fell asleep in the guest bedroom doubling as her office. The religion studies professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania says that while teaching is always exhausting, she has never “conked out” like that before.

Until recently, Eichler-Levine was leading live classes full of people whose emotions she could easily gauge, even as they navigated difficult topics—such as slavery and the Holocaust—that demand a high level of conversational nuance and empathy. Now, like countless people around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust her life into a virtual space. In addition to teaching remotely, she’s been attending a weekly department happy hour, an arts-and-crafts night with friends, and a Passover seder—all over the videoconferencing app Zoom. The experience is taking a toll.

“It's almost like you're emoting more because you're just a little box on a screen,” Eichler-Levine says. “I’m just so tired.”

So many people are reporting similar experiences that it’s earned its own slang term, Zoom fatigue, though this exhaustion also applies if you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.

There's a lot of research that shows we actually really struggle with this,” says Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University. He thinks people may be surprised at how difficult they’re finding video calls given that the medium seems neatly confined to a small screen and presents few obvious distractions.

Zoom gloom

Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.
These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener. Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.
However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.
“For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” Franklin says. Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long.
Multi-person screens magnify this exhausting problem. Gallery view—where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style—challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.
“We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular,” says Franklin. Psychologists call this continuous partial attention, and it applies as much to virtual environments as it does to real ones. Think of how hard it would be to cook and read at the same time. That's the kind of multi-tasking your brain is trying, and often failing, to navigate in a group video chat.
This leads to problems in which group video chats become less collaborative and more like siloed panels, in which only two people at a time talk while the rest listen. Because each participant is using one audio stream and is aware of all the other voices, parallel conversations are impossible. If you view a single speaker at a time, you can’t recognize how non-active participants are behaving—something you would normally pick up with peripheral vision.
For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.
That’s why a traditional phone call may be less taxing on the brain, Franklin says, because it delivers on a small promise: to convey only a voice.

Zoom boon

By contrast, the sudden shift to video calls has been a boon for people who have neurological difficulty with in-person exchanges, such as those with autism who can become overwhelmed by multiple people talking.
John Upton, an editor at the New Jersey-based news outlet Climate Central, recently found out he is autistic. Late last year, he was struggling with the mental load of attending packed conferences, engaging during in-person meetings, and navigating the small-talk that’s common in work places. He says these experiences caused “an ambiguous tension, a form of anxiety.”
However, other people on the autism spectrum may still struggle with video chatting, as it can exacerbate sensory triggers such as loud noise and bright lights, she adds.
On the whole, video chatting has allowed human connections to flourish in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. These tools enable us to maintain long-distance relationships, connect workrooms remotely, and even now, in spite of the mental exhaustion they can generate, foster some sense of togetherness during a pandemic.
It’s even possible Zoom fatigue will abate once people learn to navigate the mental tangle video chatting can cause. If you’re feeling self-conscious or overstimulated, Normand recommends you turn off your camera. Save your energy for when you absolutely want to perceive the few non-verbal cues that do come through, such as during the taxing chats with people you don’t know very well, or for when you want the warm fuzzies you get from seeing someone you love. Or if it’s a work meeting that can be done by phone, try walking at the same time.

“Walking meetings are known to improve creativity, and probably reduce stress as well,” Normand says.

Years into the pandemic, workers are still suffering from back-to-back video calls. Here’s how to rethink meetings.

A person is overwhelmed by meeting invites and email notifications.
(Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)

Pre-pandemic, white-collar workers felt meeting exhaustion. Then came Zoom fatigue. Now, they’re experiencing a bit of both, sometimes at the same time. Add the emotional fatigue stemming from ongoing world conflicts, and work can feel more draining than ever.

In this new stage of work, during which some people are back in the office, others are hybrid and some are permanently remote, many workers are being bombarded by an onslaught of meetings. And a lot of those meetings are now on video services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. But back-to-back meetings often breed exhaustion, a feeling of decreased productivity and sometimes even dread, leaving many to wonder how to escape death by meeting.

“We’re in uncharted water,” said Steven Rogelberg, who teaches organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “We just don’t know what the world of meetings looks like.”

The reliance on video meetings, which rapidly grew when workers were locked down during the pandemic, has continued despite many white-collar workers returning to the office. Microsoft recently reported that in the spring of 2022, the number of video-enabled Teams meetings per week more than doubled globally for the average user since the start of the pandemic. And there was no evidence of a reversal the following six months, the company said.

Some companies are taking drastic measures to respond to meeting overload. Shopify recently encouraged employees to decline meetings, implemented no-meeting Wednesdays and purged all meetings with more than three people, encouraging a temporary pause before anyone could add them back. And TechSmith, a Michigan-based tech firm, recently said it boosted productivity by piloting a month without meetings.

So how should workers think about their future video meetings? Can you push back on them? And if the boss is asking for these meetings, what can a worker do?

Here’s what you can do to make video meetings more effective, decrease fatigue and improve collaboration.

Have a question about tech at your workplace? Shoot us a note.

Do a meeting audit

The beginning of the year is a good time audit your meetings, work experts say.

Review all recurring meetings on your calendar. Consider which are necessary and effective, and make changes as needed, Rogelberg said. This is more effective than canceling all meetings or implementing arbitrary no-meeting times, he added. Those rules often lead to violations and an overwhelming number of meetings on the days they are allowed.

“It’s trying to be a quick fix … and doesn’t provide the promised relief,” he said. “But doing [a meeting audit] as a collective team is the best approach.

But getting rid of all meetings may be a good start for an audit, said Leslie Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. That forces workers to consciously consider which to add back.

Understand the meeting’s purpose

Before scheduling a meeting, make sure you even need one.

Rogelberg boils this down to three questions: Is there a compelling purpose to bring people together? Does the content of the meeting require engagement and interaction? And is there no alternative communication method that would be just as effective? A meeting should only be scheduled if the answers to all three questions are yes.

Otherwise, consider writing an email, sending an instant message to the group or recording a podcast to convey information. An alternate form of collaboration includes using a shared document for cross time zone feedback or brainstorming.

Raffaella Sadun, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said you also should be able to answer how the meeting contributes to the team’s objectives. Meetings also may increase accountability as participants make verbal commitments to tasks and deadlines in a group setting, she added.

“If a meeting does not involve these broader and specific objectives, it’s probably superfluous,” Sadun said.

Consider framing the meeting as a set of questions to understand what you’re trying to achieve, Rogelberg said. It may be easier to gauge a meeting’s success based on the questions answered. They will also help identify who to invite.

“I’ve always wanted to make managers have to pay for every person who has to be at the meeting so they’re forced to think about who should and shouldn’t be there,” Perlow said.

Reduce the requirements

Workers may find they are regularly invited to meetings that feel like a time suck. So can they just say no?

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“Declining meetings sounds good in theory. But in practice, that’s a terrible position to put someone in,” Rogelberg said.

Instead, Rogelberg suggested that meeting hosts create a culture that is sensitive to participants’ time by allowing people to only attend the parts relevant to them.

Invitees may have less power as they wrestle with the potential repercussions of declining a meeting. Asking a trusted supervisor whether their attendance is necessary may be a way out, Rogelberg said.

It’s all in the delivery of the message, Sadun said.

“Learn how to say no, using evidence and explaining why that time is needed,” she said. “Be very mindful of how precious your time is.”

Shorten meeting times

Often times, meetings are just too long. Shortening them could give people time back, reduce fatigue and increase effectiveness.

Hosts often set a meeting for pre-filled time slots provided by calendar or video applications. Instead, hosts should think about how much time is really needed.

“Everything stretches to the [preset] time,” Perlow said. “If we have less time, hopefully that makes us more strategic.”

Perlow suggested adding breaks between meetings. Instead of scheduling an hour-long meeting, make it 45 minutes.

“Speedy meetings and huddles can be effective,” Rogelberg said. “It serves a great purpose without the tax.”

Decrease video stress

Years of back-to-back video meetings have revealed what makes the experience so exhausting.

But Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, said workers can reduce video-call fatigue with some small tweaks.

First, hide the self-view to refocus attention from yourself to the actual meeting. Research shows that when we see ourselves, we are naturally drawn to judge every move, appearance and gesture, which increases stress, Bailenson said.

He also suggested reducing the size of the video window to more accurately reflect the distance between you and other people. This helps reduce the fatigue associated with nonverbal cues.

“If you leave the default size, it forces an intimacy we don’t have in the real world,” he said.

Ensure your setup is comfortable by adjusting the lighting, seating, and placement of the keyboard or camera. To reduce pressure, consider meetings thatrequire cameras to be off. This is especially helpful for parents and caregivers, Bailenson said.

“Does someone need to do an hour of grooming to be seen for 15 minutes?” he said. “Forcing people to be on camera may have downstream effects you haven’t thought of.”

Support in facilitation and participation

To aid with effectiveness, attendees can serve as model participants by helping facilitate the meeting or being effective listeners and talkers by keeping their points short and concise, Rogelberg said.

Sadun said attendees can also suggest an agenda and have clear follow-ups.

Brainstorm in silence

Ultimately, efficient meetings come down to execution and respect for people’s time.

Consider how much time people need to do deep thinking vs. interacting, Perlow suggested. Leverage the days people are physically together for meetings.

“It would be better if people were more intentional about when they met and what they did when they were together,” she said.

Research shows that brainstorming in silence yields more and better ideas,Rogelberg said, something meeting hosts should keep in mind. Setting up a shared document so people don’t have to work synchronously may allow everyone to work better together and come up with ideas.

“Be a part of the solution versus the problem,” Rogelberg said.