MOST people hadn’t even heard of it a few months ago, but video-conferencing platform Zoom has become one of the defining features of our new coronavirus-imposed reality. Reflecting its name, it appeared out of nowhere, leapfrogging other established platforms to become the portal of choice for everything from work meetings to virtual cocktail parties to yoga lessons.
According to recent statistics, the number of daily users jumped from 10m in January to 300m by April 21. However, as the voyeuristic pleasures of having a nose at the interior decor of our colleagues and friends or perusing their bookshelves begin to fade, there is increasing concern about the psychological effects of using such technology and whether ‘Zoom fatigue’ is already setting in.
Suzanne Degges-White, a counsellor and professor at Northern Illinois University, says we are trying to navigate new ways of working and communicating in a time of unprecedented upheaval and it is taking a significant physical, emotional, and mental toll.
“Our lives have changed in deeply socio-economical and psychological ways that we did not expect, and our bodies have been put in a fight-orflight mode. It is exhausting to try to be everything we were when we could compartmentalise. It takes a lot of emotional energy to show up and be present on Zoom calls, or whatever software you are using. We have to forget everything that is going on, the pet scratching at the door, the kids screaming, getting tired of being in lockdown. It is hard now for us to maintain that sense of esprit de corps that we might have felt at the start.”
According to Yseult Freeney, an associate professor in organisational psychology at DCU, online meetings tend to take a greater physical and mental toll because we are working harder to pick up verbal and body language cues.
“Even though we can still see people, it actually requires a much more deliberate concentration when you are in an online context than when you are in a face-to-face meeting, where we are just much more automatic about picking up important cues. People don’t tend to jump over each in meetings, and if they do, it is much more easily resolved in that kind of situation.”
Freeney adds that there are also other aspects of physical meetings that we miss out on.
“One is those kind of micro-transitions between work meetings. As you arrive or leave a meeting, you are probably chatting to people informally. You are not going to schedule that time into a Zoom meeting. Everything now becomes more intense, much more focused on the work.”
Freeney says there is another thing we focus on in online meetings that may be depleting our energy.
“Another thing about video conferencing that people might not want to admit is that they spend a lot of time looking at themselves. We are very distracted by our own faces and how we look, and how other people see us. Think about the brain power that is being used up by looking at ourselves while trying to concentrate on everything else — we are confronted with a lot more faces and expressions, they are all staring at us. It is an added drain on our mental resources.”
A MOMENT OF GRIEF
Gianpiero Petriglieri is a management professor, author, and speaker. His Twitter thread on ‘Zoom fatigue’ recently went viral, striking a chord with many people who said they were struggling with online meetings and social get-togethers.
“One of the most solid findings in psychology is that any kind of dissonance is energy-consuming,” says Petriglieri. “To have two feelings, or
‘You have two conflicting truths — that we are together and we are apart. Our minds register the togetherness, but our bodies register the distance
conflicting experiences, our brains are not designed for that. They are designed to resolve ambiguity and try to find one truth, one story, one view. When you apply that to the experience of Zooming, the dissonance is between presence and absence. You have two conflicting truths — that we are together and we are apart. Our minds register the togetherness, but our bodies register the distance.”
Petriglieri says the context in which we are using such technology, as opposed to the actual technology itself, is obviously a huge factor.
“I have been using these tools for a long time, I do a lot of remote work and I wasn’t disturbed by it. Then I found myself having this very bizarre experience that these video calls were provoking distress. It is not the technology, it is that the call is reminding me of what I have lost. We talk a lot about the grieving and the loss around this crisis, and we are also thinking about the loss of our jobs, our lifestyle, our normality — we are very focused on the big grief, but I think there is a moment of grief with a small ‘g’, every time we see someone we love, we are reminded that they are also struggling and we cannot touch them.”
Petriglieri is a Sicilian, based just outside Paris, and as such acknowledges the huge benefits of such technology in terms of allowing us to connect with each other.
“Like everyone, I am conflicted. My mother is in Italy, she is old, and I am worried about her, and I am so grateful I can see her. But to see her in the house alone, and not know when I am going to be able to visit, and to see her trying to keep it all together is heartbreaking.
“Obviously, I still teach online and do video-conferencing for work. But at the same time, I am doing things so as not to be drained by online calls. The first week we all did those Zoom dinner parties with 12 people and the virtual happy hours — I’ve cut down on those. I am trying to avoid back-toback calls, and I would also rather have a chat with one or two people.”
Rowena Hennigan, a remote work skills lecturer at TU Dublin, says a lot of people have been thrown into the deep end with video conferencing tools, which adds to their stress.
“This is not normal remote work, this is emergency reactive work from home. I am training hundreds of people on video at the moment. For a lot of them, it is an educational learning shock, there is a massive learning curve. If you were a company or an individual transitioning to remote work properly, it would be done in six months to a year, not a week, and it wouldn’t be with all these external stresses and worry.”
She says it is important not to lose sight of the benefits of remote working, citing a recent Dublin Chamber study which found that 86% of respondents reported positive experiences of remote working (to the end of March).
“People are benefiting from the flexibility ... but again in this context, there is fatigue and stress from the crisis, worry about job security, the juggling of commitments, all those things. So I think the psychological stress is external and we need to be careful of how we analyse that.”
In terms of maximising communication, Hennigan recommends using clear visual cue cards indicating for example, when someone wants to speak, if they are in agreement with a proposal or if time is running out. Numerous and endless work meetings are not desirable, she says.
“All the leading companies are doing short calls with multiple people on them where they use visual cues and agile methodology, which is really productive. It is not hours and hours on video, and everyone has a turn. That is combined with support for social interaction, lots of one-onones, and buddying systems. Yes, for people thrown into the deep end, there is a plethora of video calls with no context, people feeling ‘what am I doing?’, because the supports aren’t there, it is not culturally ingrained.”
Petriglieri says that using Zoom for so many facets of our lives — work, social life and family — can also contribute to exhaustion.
“This is called ‘context collapse’. Zoom is one space in which all your relationships happen. I was using these tools for work, I wasn’t primarily using them for social means, for intimacy. It is like everyone is coming to my office to have drinks, to hang out … my relatives, my friends. Normally there is a distinction between these roles and places.
“Zoom is like this small office where you are trying to satisfy all your social, work, romantic needs all in the same 2D box in which you cannot touch another person. When I have had Zoom drinks with friends, there is this moment when they clink their glass at the screen — I have to make an effort not to cry. That effort is what is exhausting.”