At this point, many of us still are unsure of whether we will be working in or out of the office, but one thing is quite certain: Zoom meetings aren’t going anywhere. Zoom fatigue, a term you never thought you would hear so frequently, is now a regular part of work. Even before it was Zoom fatigue, we talked about meeting fatigue and the exhaustion that follows. So is the problem really Zoom, or are we just sick and tired of all the meetings?
Between the weekly work from home vs. office poll, articles detailing the benefits of both, and employers urging a return to the office, work as we know it is changing, but how? You might have some employees tuning in virtually while the rest of your team sits around a zoom big-screen, or you might never go into the office again. Regardless, we have learned how exhausting meetings can be whether you’re in the office or at home, and something has to change.
The most taxing meetings feel routine, mundane, or simply a waste of time and energy, so maybe it’s time we hit refresh.
What is meeting fatigue?
Until this past year, most of us could easily gauge the emotions of others in a face-to-face meeting, but now we are left to guess. New hires feel lost, teams struggle to build trust over zoom, and productive, thoughtful meetings fall beyond our reach. People are so exhausted by the constant on-screen time that we have coined a new slang for it: Zoom Fatigue.
The migration to online working has unintentionally resulted in a mass social experiment: can a virtual connection be equal to or stronger than an in-person connection? Proving the hypothesis that virtual interactions are challenging for the brain and increase exhaustion.
Why are virtual meetings so draining?
Humans are constantly communicating, even when completely silent. We look for under-the-table fidgeting, deep breaths, a quick inhale in preparation to interrupt, or slight hand gestures, taking each cue as part of unspoken understanding. These cues help us communicate with one another as we predict the listener’s next move and build emotional connections. We observe these communication cues with little conscious effort and act under non-verbal etiquette. But without obvious non-verbal cues in a Zoom meeting, we become lost in conversation.
Our brain is much more taxed in virtual meetings because we work twice as hard to observe non-verbal cues through a screen. We sharpen our focus to spoken word because non-verbal cues are limited on a screen. When a person is framed from the shoulders up, it is nearly impossible to view and interpret gestures. Humans did not evolve without social cues, and although we can quickly adapt, this change can result in higher anxiety levels.
“People just don’t like looking at their own heads for hours. It’s quite exhausting and stressful, and it’s an unnatural thing because obviously in real life we can’t see our own face when we’re talking.” - Dr. Libby Sander
Our brains are tired and here’s why
Zoom meetings challenge the brain's central vision and confuse our focus with multiple people on the screen, leaving us exhausted. While interpreting in-person social cues drains little of our energy, searching for verbal cues in a zoom meeting requires much more concentration. As we strain to attend to each speaker, we are less likely to absorb information and have meaningful interactions.
We are trying and failing to multitask in a virtual environment — attending to multiple people simultaneously, responding to side conversations, or looking over a project last-minute — it’s as if we’re trying to cook and read at the same time and we can’t do it all. This spit of attention leaves you feeling drained, having accomplished little to nothing, and unable to give all your attention to one aspect of the conversation.
How much eye contact is too much?
Prolonged eye contact with a peer can be very intense, let alone constant eye contact with your boss — it’s no wonder we feel instant anxiety when our camera turns on. Researchers have found that while eye contact is an essential piece of social interaction, prolonged eye contact can make people feel uncomfortable and irritated. While some may enjoy the intimacy of prolonged eye contact, others relish the thought of holding eye contact with colleagues for too long. Chances are, at least one person in your meeting is waiting for the opportunity to turn off their camera and release the eye contact.
Gaze signals that you are a point of interest, but when eye contact is held for too long, it becomes threatening and makes the other person uneasy. On the flip side, if someone avoids your eye contact (or is multitasking on another screen), you might feel ostracized. This leads to feelings of meeting anxiety and can strain your energy faster than when you have your camera off. It’s a good idea to occasionally turn your camera off and preserve your energy, especially if prolonged eye contact makes you feel anxious.
Does this need to be a meeting?
“Let’s have a meeting” is the universal way to solve any business dispute, but sometimes meetings are unnecessary. Virtual meetings take up a lot of mental energy and zap you out of focus, yet we hardly decline a disruption to our workday. We often feel like we need to accelerate contact when we work virtually, resulting in useless meetings and stolen time from deep work. In reality, we should be ruthless with the decision to meet about a specific project.
Instead, we pack our schedules with meetings that lack a specific goal or agenda...
Meetings to discuss when to have the next meeting
Meetings to discuss the last meeting
Meetings to talk about having fewer meetings
The list goes on and on…
One of the best strategies to combat zoom fatigue is to rethink the purpose of meetings and reduce the time you spend in ‘routine’ check-ins. We often meet, not when there’s a specific goal, but because we have already set our schedule. You will be much more productive and less fatigued if you ask yourself, “does this need to be a meeting” and start prioritizing deep work.
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Tips to refresh your meetings
Virtual meetings have their perks — no commute, pajama attire, and unlimited snacks — but we need to establish boundaries to help limit meeting anxiety. Here are five tips to freshen up your meetings and reduce the anxiety you feel during meetings.
Turn a 30m meeting into a 10m phone call
Don’t be afraid to cancel your Zoom meeting and opt for a quick phone call instead — talking on the phone is less taxing on your brain because your focus is centralized on voice. Save your energy for when you need and want to perceive non-verbal cues in a virtual meeting. Searching for non-verbal cues through a screen is the main reason why we feel so exhausted after a zoom meeting — our brains are working twice as hard to pick up communication cues. If you can do your work meeting over the phone, don’t hesitate to take that option and maybe even go for a walk while you chat to boost energy levels.
Suppose you are meeting to structure a project without bones, schedule time with yourself to do some strategic thinking, and book a meeting once you’ve given the task more thought. It’s an inefficient use of time to meet without an agenda, so wait until you have accessed the project’s scope and then consider whether it requires a meeting.
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Resist the urge to multitask
Multitasking is the biggest culprit of an unproductive day, but it can be challenging to resist the urge when you feel more efficient. It’s tempting to run through your emails or slack messages during a meeting, but you should wait until you can focus singularly on those tasks. Research has found that people cannot remember things with accuracy when caught multitasking, so you might leave important meetings without answers.
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Define your meeting goal
Ensure that your meeting has a clearly defined goal to line up action items quickly. Collectively decide what you are hoping to achieve and clarify everyone’s role in reaching that goal. Your meetings will be much more productive if you can lay out a plan and hyperfocus on one goal at a time.
Make meetings accessible to everyone
With the possible shift to a hybrid workforce, we need to ensure that participation in meetings is accessible to all. If everyone joins the meeting virtually (even if in office), you can ensure that:
- Everyone has equal opportunity to participate
- There are no exclusive side conversations
- Leaders consider the meeting quality for everyone on the team
This might not be realistic for every company, especially without resources for both onsite and remote employees, but it is still vital to facilitate high participation meetings. If you have a few remote employees, discuss how to improve the virtual experience and encourage full participation.
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Give everyone a chance to speak
Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in a meeting, and it’s essential to put those employees at ease by understanding their communication style. Send your team a meeting agenda so that everyone has a chance to write down any comments, questions, or action items beforehand. Some people need time and space to think things through, and agendas give every team member that opportunity.
Finally, don’t take yourself so seriously
Ease everyone’s meeting anxiety with an icebreaker and build a sense of community with your team. There’s no reason to be serious for the entire meeting, and cracking a joke will make everyone else feel more comfortable. Asking icebreaker questions not only warms up your conversational skills but builds empathy and facilitates positive interactions.
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