Why Social Scientists Say You Feel Exhausted After Zoom Meetings

Why Social Scientists Say You Feel Exhausted After Zoom Meetings

Read Time: 8 Minutes


21 Apr 2021

Over the last year, many of us have become all too familiar with working from home – and the pros and cons that come with this way of working. One of which is the vastly increased number of Zoom, or video call, meetings.

Almost immediately after workers were told to work from home where possible, reports of experiencing a new phenomenon of something called ‘Zoom fatigue’ came rolling in, with many putting this down as a by-product of the number of virtual meetings and length of time we spend in them.

However, social scientists believe this is an over-simplification and there’s actually a lot more to it. In fact, one of the reasons we feel particularly exhausted following a lot of Zoom calls could be because of a sudden, mass switch to this new technology that’s disrupting the way we’re used to communicating with one another.

According to Jeremy Bailenson, Professor and Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, “We’ve evolved to get meaning out of a flick of the eye. Our species has survived because we can produce those signals in a way that’s meaningful. Zoom smothers you with cues and they aren’t synchronous. It takes a physiological toll.”

But that’s not to say the number of meetings we’re having over Zoom isn’t also having an effect on our moods and productivity levels.

Researchers from Harvard Business School found that we’re attending 13.1% more meetings now that we’ve gone digital. When you combine that with the time and resources taken to plan, schedule in and prepare for meetings (and the fact that having lots of meetings tends to disrupt ‘deep’ work), there’s no wonder we’re experiencing so-called Zoom fatigue.

So, what’s the alternative? Best-selling author and computer scientist Cal Newport might have cracked it… 


Why So Many Meetings?

To give a little background context, let’s look at the reason why we might be setting more meetings right now. There are lots of different factors involved, but here are three of the big ones.

1. Relieving anxiety

Working from home means facing a huge variety of challenges that we just aren’t used to having to deal with. This, therefore, means we’re likely to have lots of unexpected questions to deal with.

At the moment, you might schedule a meeting to go over that question, and since the calendar is a trustworthy planning tool, you know the meeting won’t be forgotten about and you won’t need to keep the question in your head until the opportunity to ask it arises. This all works to relieve anxiety about your new environment and way of working.

2. It’s less effort than before

Back when we were all working in the office, booking a meeting took a lot of energy – from everyone involved. It meant booking out a meeting room and getting invitees to physically move to a different room.

Now, it’s all there at the click of a button, and since we can take these calls from our desks (where we’re all at anyway), there’s no need to move about from room to room. The cost is less.

3. Team alignment

Face-to-face working has massive benefits for communication and team alignment. Now that we’re working remotely, it’s harder to turn around to your colleague and ask them a quick question or roll your wheelie chair over to their desk to watch how to do something.

Instead, we’re having to replace these small, everyday communications with scheduled meetings.


How Does ‘Zoom Fatigue’ Manifest?

In Bailenson’s article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective, he identifies four consequences of taking part in prolonged video chats which contribute to the tiredness often felt after a week of Zoom calls.

1. Intense, close-up eye contact

In a normal meeting, you’d be looking at either the person speaking, your notes or elsewhere. However, in a Zoom call, you’re looking at everyone. All the time. And to make matters worse, their faces are closer than they would be if you were all sitting together in a meeting room, which makes the whole situation feel very intense.

2. Looking at yourself

Usually, when you’re video calling your colleagues, you can see their faces – but also your own. This isn’t something that’s naturally part of our face-to-face conversations with people.

Bailenson said, “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that.”

Furthermore, he cited other studies that found when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. This in itself is a stressor.

3. Limited mobility

In-person and phone call conversations allow you to walk around and moved. However, with videoconferencing, this isn’t always possible to do and stay within the camera’s field of view. This is again something that’s unnatural in our normal conversational behaviour. Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone instead of our laptops?

“There’s growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson adds.

4. High cognitive load

In video chats, it’s harder to send and interpret non-verbal cues, which is something we do instinctively during face-to-face meetings. Zoom calls take something so natural (in-person conversation) and transform it into something that requires a lot of thought. Something as simple as exaggerating a head nod or putting up a thumbs up so the camera can see takes a lot more thought and energy than our more innate gestures in real-life conversation.


Meetings Still Matter

Sure, we can joke about our less-than-productive meetings and think to ourselves “Surely, this could have been discussed in an email”, but let’s face it: meetings are still an essential part of our working lives.

They enable collaboration, creativity and innovation as well as fostering relationships and ensuring information is properly communicated – which is where email can often have its downfalls.

Furthermore, you should never be afraid to ask a question at work. Sitting there worrying is less than productive, especially if you take a guess at a job you’re unsure of and it ends up backfiring. 

But for the little questions, the 15-minute conversations and for a quick catch up, Zoom meetings between remote workers are perhaps not the best way to communicate and stay productive whilst avoiding that disruptive and exhaustive effect video calls tend to have on us.


A New Way of Communicating

We’re working in a way that’s totally different to what we’re used to and it makes sense that we may need to adapt other processes to suit.

In a recent blog post delving into meeting overload during the pandemic, Cal Newport suggested a new, more radical approach that may be better fitted to the way we’re currently working than a traditional and rigid meeting.

In a nutshell, he suggests eradicating our current way of setting (somewhat) restrictive meetings for quick questions and instead opt for an ‘office hours’ approach where people can pop in and ask what they need at set times during the day.
Newport sets out the following bullet points for how this would work:

  • Everyone maintains regular office hours: set times each week during which they’re always available via video conference, chat, and phone. During these times you can digitally stop by and chat without a prior appointment. 
  • If you have a topic you want to discuss with a group of your colleagues, instead of gathering them all together in a new meeting, you instead visit each of their office hours one-by-one to talk it through.
  • In many cases, these one-on-one conversations should be sufficient for you to reach a resolution on the issue, or at the very least, reduce it down to a very targeted set of questions that can be much more efficiently addressed.

As an example, Newport uses a marketing campaign that he needs feedback on, pointing out that if he were to set an hour-long meeting with five of his co-workers, that eliminates 6 potential working hours – or 360 minutes.

If, instead, he was to use reverse meetings, he might take 10 minutes from each colleague to get their feedback, taking up just 50 minutes of his own time, and 10 minutes of time from each of the 5 colleagues – totalling just 100 minutes overall.

This results in 3.6 times less cost of people hours.

There are obviously instances where it’s beneficial to have the whole team in one room (or on one server/call if you’re doing things virtually), but for 1-2-1 calls, reverse meetings can be a real time-saver and help reduce feelings of Zoom fatigue.


Reverse Meetings in Action at instantprint

When the pandemic first forced us to move to working from home last year, our web development team applied a similar concept to reverse meetings to help the smooth out any bumps in the road during the transition period.

Using Discord, an instant messaging platform generally used by gamers, each member of the team made themselves available during usual work hours so people could call or message them to chat through questions and concerns whenever they needed to, without having to book a meeting in advance.

This is the perfect solution for close-knit teams, especially those which deal with complex issues within a company, who are used to being able to rely on instant conversation within the office environment. By getting a direct answer or piece of advice, they don’t need to pause what they’re doing to wait for help. Productivity isn’t being sacrificed, and the team weren’t spending all their time in long, planned out meetings and facing the overload that Zoom is known to bring.

How instantprint Incorporates Patrick Lencioni’s Famous Meeting Framework for Effective Decision Making

Like we’ve reiterated throughout this article, sometimes meetings are essential – there will be times when it’s faster and more effective to have everyone on the same call at once. However, there are strategies for making sure you’re making the most of the time you have with your team.

Here at instantprint, all members of our management team are encouraged to read Death By Meeting, a book by Patrick Lencioni aimed at helping leaders eliminate wasted time and frustration and instead create passion and engagement through meetings.

We use Lencioni’s meeting framework to structure our meetings in lockdown and virtually, as well as during pre-COVID times. In any business, a leadership team must work on two levels: on the business (setting strategy, reviewing performance) and in the business (monitoring teams, clearing roadblocks). Although intrinsically linked, each of these kinds of meetings requires distinct ways of thinking, which is why it’s important to keep them separate to get the most impact from them.

Lencioni outlines the following five types of meetings, split out to reflect this dual cadence.

The Operational Meeting Cadence (In the Business)

These meetings should be held often as their frequency drives momentum and day-to-day results. They make sure all moving parts are coordinated and any issues raised can be dealt with swiftly.

1. The Daily Huddle 
Designed to kick the day off to a synchronised start, this meeting covers who’s doing what plus any initial questions. This helps eliminate email back-and-forth and any blocks as issues can be picked up and resolved after the huddle with the relevant people.

Among other benefits, the daily huddle allows team members to share resources and potentially useful information, as well as prevent duplicate work being produced, which is a huge timesaver.

2. The Weekly Leadership Team Meeting
The weekly leadership team meeting is all about problem-solving. This meeting should be scheduled at the same time each week and last around 60-90 minutes, during which teams take accountability to identify and resolve upcoming problems.

Although the actual reviewing of goals and progress should be kept short and sweet, having these in mind will be crucial to identifying blocks and next steps. By dedicating time to solve a few outlined large problems each week, this ensures that important issues are addressed.

This can lead to a sense of productivity and achievement, as, once the problem is solved, it’s also a great space for celebrating this success.

The Strategic Meeting Cadence (On the Business)

These meetings help stop your long-term goals and strategies from getting ‘fuzzy’, keeping the leadership team on track and aware of actions they need to take to drive the business forward.

3. Annual Strategic Planning
This is where teams can let their imaginations take the reins, with big ideas about the business’s future being the main agenda of this once-a-year meeting. These ideas must then be moulded into actionable plans and goals.

Many leadership teams take one or two days for strategic planning every year, with gathering input from the wider team and preparations for this often taking weeks. The goals outlined in this meeting will then go on to constitute annual (or even 3- and 5-year) plans for the business.

4. Quarterly Strategic Refresh
While the annual strategic planning meeting asks for big ideas, the quarterly strategic refresh meetings are where the team will need to face these decisions head on. In this meeting, you’ll need to review your progress towards your annual goals, looking at:

  • Whether your actions are in line with your goal
  • How well projections have matched reality
  • If there’s anything going on in the outside world that might impact your ability to reach the goals

90 days (or one quarter) is enough time to see whether the actions put into place are having enough of an impact. It’s also around this time where the strategic focus may start to yield, making it a good opportunity to refresh everyone on the annual plan.

You might find that some goals will need tweaking or new actions in place, as the events of the quarter have shown they aren’t achievable in the timeframe set out.

We have our quarterly meetings as offsite days, which gives the leadership team the space to step away from day-to-day priorities and focus on the strategy.

5. The Monthly + Anytime Decision-Making Meeting
As the name suggests, the ‘anytime’ meeting should be scheduled any time there is a serious strategic issue or challenge that needs addressing. However, many businesses find it useful to schedule this meeting in once a month to try and tackle problems before they arise. 

By planning in time once a month with key members of your leadership team, these discussions will keep you from getting bogged down during the week – and it stops you from trying to tackle these kinds of issues in your operational meetings, when you’re not in the right mindset and there isn’t enough time to really get to the bottom of the problem. This, ultimately, prevents sloppy and rushed decision making.

If team leaders feel confident that there are no urgent issues, this meeting can be deferred until the next month.

Zoom fatigue is a genuine concern for many business owners and their employees. Not only can it dampen productivity, but it can also lead to burnout. In this article, we’ve outlined plenty of alternatives to video calls – and our examples are not exhaustive of all the different options out there. The next time you go to book in for a quick meeting with a colleague, ask yourself – is there a better way of having this conversation?


About the Author

Hi, I’m Ally and I’m instantprint’s PR Lead. I enjoy writing content to help small businesses succeed and inspire them to get creative with their print marketing.