If you’re Zoomed out – and many of us are after a year of virtual working – then it’s easy to blame the failings of the meeting platform, isn’t it? But to focus on Zoom’s limitations is to ignore the main problem: this isn’t the technology’s fault. It’s what we’re doing with it, and how many video meetings we’re organising.

Jeremy Bailenson’s recent Stanford paper on Zoom fatigue has attracted plenty of attention: as many weary working-from-home veterans will confirm, virtual video interactions really are more tiring than their face-to-face equivalents.

Why? Bailenson suggests four main contributory factors. The extra cognitive load that comes from working without the “incredibly complex” body language signals we get when we’re in a room with people; the unusual exposure to direct eye gaze for lengthy periods; having to sit still through a video meeting with no option to ‘walk and talk’ (as you’d have on the phone). Plus, you’re likely to be looking at yourself as well as everyone else in the meeting, leading to stressful self-evaluation.


Solutions to fatigue

As the paper acknowledges, there are some relatively simple things you can do to combat these problems. If you’re not sure how your message is being received, you can always ask people for feedback. If you’re feeling under too much scrutiny, you could turn off your video, look away from the screen for a bit and simply listen (having explained yourself first to the chair, of course). There’s nothing to stop you moving around in a meeting, so long as it’s clear to everyone that you’re still paying attention. And if you don’t like looking at yourself, then Zoom allows you to turn off your self-view (while everyone else can still see you).

A lot of these issues could be mitigated by better meeting management: shorter gatherings; more breaks; flexible ground rules; the right to join by phone rather than video if you’d prefer. No-one’s going to get the best out of you in the third hour of a video meeting, but so many of us still plough on regardless.

So, we can think about how we use Zoom and other platforms, but what Bailenson’s paper doesn’t really address is how much we’re using it. I talked with a client several weeks ago about his current workload: like a lot of people, he’s probably working harder and for longer hours since lockdown. He’s a subject matter expert, and his skills are in constant demand. I asked him how his day broke down: what was he actually doing? His response should give all of us pause.

He told me that he currently spends most of his day in virtual video meetings and ends up working until 11 or 12 most evenings doing the project work he doesn’t have time for. He blamed the virtual work environment: normally people come over to his desk and they talk for five minutes. Now, people are booking 30-minute to 1-hour Teams or Webex meetings instead. He’s loath to say no – he wants to be helpful – and so that’s how he’s spending his days (and nights).


How to better manage meetings

We know that he isn’t alone. Working Voices has run sessions on leading meetings for over ten years: even before the pandemic, our clients have regularly acknowledged how difficult it is to get work done, given the amount of time we’re all expected to spend talking about it. The common assumption that a meeting is probably the best way to address anything is, of course, at the heart of the problem. Added to that, while people are working virtually, too many of us assume that a video meeting is the best – maybe the only – way to achieve an exchange of views or to update their colleagues on a project. And to do that is to ignore all the different modes of communication at our disposal.

What should you do? If you’re a potential attendee, think very carefully before you accept a meeting invitation, especially if you’re not 100% convinced it will be a worthwhile use of your time. But it’s as a potential meeting organiser that you can make the most difference. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you really need to have a meeting? If you need to collaborate, make a group decision, problem solve or train people, then organise a meeting. If you’re simply conveying information or updating people, ask yourself:
  • Could I use another channel? If you can make use of collaboration software or simply email people to keep them up-to-date, then do so.
  • Do I need to organise a video meeting? If it’s essential for the attendees to be able to see one another or view shared material, then a virtual meeting platform might be the best option. Or you could send people the material in advance, and organise a conference call instead.

We are fortunate indeed that when the pandemic hit so many of us were able to work from home – and Working Voices will always be hugely grateful for the existence of all the meeting platforms out there. But for the sake of mental health and wellbeing, it’s vital that we use the technology in a more considered way. Another client recently asked why we’re all having so many virtual meetings now. My answer was similar to the punchline to the joke about the specifics of a dog’s personal hygiene routine: because we can.

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