Many companies have chosen to delay returning to the office because of the COVID-19 variants and have opted for hybrid or remote working arrangements. What that means is that virtual meetings are here to stay and most of us are weary.
Virtual meeting fatigue, also called "virtual fatigue" or "zoom fatigue," is a critical problem and can lead to workplace burnout, which we discussed in our interview series, Wellness in the Workplace. According to an article by Healthline, symptoms of virtual fatigue include exhaustion, difficulty focusing, and irritability.
Why are virtual meetings so exhausting?
In an article in Harvard Business Review, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy explain that virtual fatigue results from multitasking while attending meetings, work-from-home distractions, and a hyperawareness of how we appear on the screen. Working remotely also lengthens the workday. People are more tempted to answer emails and perform other work tasks after hours in a work-from-home environment. A study by Harvard Business School (HBS) found the average workday increased by almost 50 minutes in the early days of the pandemic. The HBS study also found people attended 13 percent more meetings after the start of the pandemic, although the meetings were shorter.
Not everyone is equally affected by virtual fatigue. A study by Stanford University, which administered the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue scale to 10,591 participants from a convenience sample, found the exhaustion of juggling many online meetings is worse for women, with nearly 14 percent of women reporting that they felt "very" to "extremely" fatigued after video calls. The study pointed out that “self-focused attention” due to self-view in video conferencing was to blame. Seeing themselves on camera heightens awareness of how they come across in meetings, leading to negative feelings or “mirror anxiety.”
What companies are doing to address virtual fatigue:
Simply shutting off the cameras can help reduce exhaustion from virtual meetings. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which surveyed 103 remote workers for four weeks, found turning off the cameras allowed workers to focus on the content of the meeting rather than their self-presentation on camera. These findings do not mean companies should throw out video conferencing entirely but instead give employees the option to stay off-camera.
Some companies designate specific days where no virtual meetings will take place. Citigroup rolled out "Zoom-Free Fridays" soon after the pandemic came to the US in March 2020. Any necessary internal meetings are audio-only. HSBC, Salesforce, and TikTok also decided to limit video conferences and give workers more time away from the camera.
While we cannot eliminate camera time entirely, we can reduce the disruption when using multiple conferencing tools. A survey by Prezi, a communications software company, found engaging environments in a hybrid office is one of the most important keys to success. Prezi suggested that companies make the video conferencing experience more immersive and use less disruptive and better-streamlined tools. For example, commit to one suite of tools, such as Google Docs and Slides, if Google Meet is the company's virtual meeting software of choice. This consistency eliminates the disruption of jumping back and forth between tools during meeting time, potentially losing the audience. Prezi used their survey results to build their new user experience to create this consistent environment for their clients, including Gensler, IBM, Vodafone and many others.
A gaming software company in Maine designed interactive online games to help people stay tuned in. Goodgames created a series of interactive games for meeting participants to play during video conferences. The games help participants refocus if their minds begin to wander. Goodgames production coordinator Anne Schreiber said, "Playing a game or using one of our game-like experiences can help you take a break, refresh your brain [and] actually biologically trigger your brain to start thinking in a different way, so you can go back to that meeting refreshed."
Zoom Apps launched in 2021, offers many immersive tools to encourage collaboration and productivity, including apps for engaging participants before, during, and after meetings. For example, meeting participants can play Heads Up! or BINGO! For Zoom with their coworkers while waiting for a meeting to begin. Once the meeting starts, participants can engage in collaborative notetaking using Dropbox Spaces or capture feedback with SurveyMonkey.
Injecting some fun into virtual meetings does not have to be complicated or require additional apps. It can be as simple as encouraging participants to use virtual backgrounds or planning some optional themed social time (Taco Tuesday anyone?). One man in Australia created an entertaining video virtual background of himself interrupting his own conference call.
Inclusive Virtual Spaces
Inclusivity is another critical factor in combating virtual fatigue. Accessibility options such as automatic captioning, call-in options, meeting recordings, and pdfs allow people who are caregivers, immunocompromised or have mobility restrictions to present their work and network safely. Providing attendees a variety of ways to participate allows virtual meetings to run smoothly. Accessibility is a learning process, but with two years of navigating the virtual meeting and office spaces, best practices will continue to evolve. The American Geophysical Union’s Ethics and Equity Center suggest several best practices for inclusive virtual meetings. Communicating clear meeting objectives and practices, along with facilitating opportunities for everyone to give feedback are critical for making participants feel included.
Although virtual fatigue is a challenge, video calls and meetings do give managers some advantages that in-person meetings cannot. An article by Bob Frisch and Cary Greene in the Harvard Business Review states the nature of virtual meetings can bring out participation from more introverted employees and make idea sessions and polling more efficient and candid. Adjusting our expectations can alleviate some of the pressure to "appear" in online meetings and streamlining meeting tools will help reduce virtual fatigue while maintaining connections with the team.