Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Her role as a content designer involves developing new and engaging e-learning modules as well as assisting in the creation of articles for Insight.
It has been just over a year since we have had to adapt to this ‘new normal’. Many of us have been relieved not to have to travel to the office every day, utilising the extra time to be more productive whilst working in a domestic setting. Now, as we return to office life, most firms have embraced the practice of flexible work arrangements to allow staff to continue working from home. The benefits of flexible working, however, comes with a caveat: more meetings and increased screen time.
Virtual meetings are something we have all had to get used to. From the early days of technical issues plaguing every session (“you’re still on mute!”) all the way up to the present, scheduling multiple meetings with the same colleagues at different times of day (that calendar seems to be a lot more crowded these days). Videoconferencing tools such as Zoom may have helped to maintain communication that would otherwise be impossible, but for a majority, the expectations to maintain that level of contact is even more draining than they were pre-covid.
Staff have reported spending as much as six hours a day in back-to-back remote meetings, often finding themselves working long after hours to catch up on tasks they could not undertake during the day. The definitive start and finish times that were usually bookended by the office commute has instead been replaced with longer working hours which has steadily creeped into people’s personal lives.
How many of us can admit to responding to emails over the weekend? Or what about “just finishing this last bit” more than three hours after we should have shut down for the night? No matter how much we try not to let it become a habit, the need to create less work for ourselves ends up being counterproductive. Combined with the stress of multiple meetings throughout the day, the end result is what is known as “Zoom fatigue”, and the symptoms of which we are all too familiar with.
The causes and effects of Zoom Fatigue
On a busy day that is chock-full of videocalls, there are four factors that users have to contend with. First, it involves adapting to an entirely new set of social cues to deal with only seeing your colleagues from the shoulders up. Whether its dramatically waving at the camera to say hello/goodbye, raising a thumbs up to signal a message received, or even just maintaining eye contact with the screen to show that you are paying attention, there is a lot more effort to try and convey the right gestures and reactions than in a regular face-to-face session.
During a videocall, many people feel like they have to remain in one spot for the entire duration of the call so that they stay within view of the webcam at all times. Often this leaves people feeling trapped and stressed by the end of the meeting.
Another problem staff have also struggled with is their own image reflected on the screen. Also known as ‘mirror anxiety’, the constant real-time reflection makes the person hyper-aware of their appearance and body language and creates distractions while the person tries to remain somewhat neutral in their expressions.
Lastly, there is the issue of the ‘hypergaze,’: an intense feeling that the other people on the call are staring at you despite the contrary, as the video display shows everyone looking toward their cameras no matter where the focus is actually directed.
All these factors contribute to increased mental exhaustion, leading to reduced productivity and often lower morale. The symptoms are similar to burnout, in which the individual has difficulty concentrating and stressed even before they get started on the tasks they have had to postpone due to being stuck in meetings all morning. Even the CEO of Zoom, Eric Yuan, has admitted to becoming weary of endless videocalls, and has made the decision to scale back the number of meetings in his daily schedule.
Managing videocall burnout
Increased fatigue in the workplace – whether remote or in the office – is an issue that businesses need to address. The last year has been difficult for everyone and establishing a culture where staff – including leaders - can admit when they are struggling without fear of being seen as weak is the first step. Additionally, learning how to identify and address burnout in individuals can help reduce its effects before it can escalate further.
As helpful as it has been when getting us through the year, the likes of Zoom and the numerous other videoconferencing tools have proven to be a curse as well as a blessing in regard to being more productive at work. Many businesses have started to set out days where employees do not have to participate in meetings so that they can carry on with other tasks.
This week, HSBC announced they are trialling ‘Zoom-free Fridays’ in a bid to combat videocall burnout. The news follows the company’s plans to reduce its office space by 40%, and other businesses are following in their footsteps in a bid to find out what arrangements work best for the future of their workplaces. This may include putting limits on the number of meetings in the week or organising face-to-face sessions on days when staff are in the office.
Whilst flexible working appears to be here to stay, appropriate measures must be considered so that the same cannot be said for videocall fatigue.
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