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How to Combat Zoom Fatigue
Zoom enables virtual meetings — but it's also leading to employee burnout. Here's how experts from Asana and other organizations suggest combating Zoom fatigue.
LinkedIn Sales Solutions / Unsplash.
By Allison Torres Burtka
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9 minute read

In the last few years, Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have become an essential part of the workday for many people—even those who had never used video calls before the COVID-19 pandemic. While video calls enable meetings that would be difficult to pull off otherwise, they’re also contributing to burnout, because they're taxing in ways that in-person meetings aren’t.

What is Zoom fatigue?

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology defined “Zoom fatigue” as a feeling of being drained and lacking energy following a day of virtual meetings. The study found that the use of a camera causes fatigue, suggesting that using cameras may actually detract from employees’ engagement. It also found that women and newer employees in particular were more fatigued by the use of cameras.

Stanford University Communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson suggested in Technology, Mind and Behavior some potential causes of Zoom fatigue. They include the excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze that occur in Zoom meetings, and people’s heightened self-evaluation when they stare at a video of themselves. “From a perceptual standpoint, Zoom effectively transforms listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with eye gaze,” but in an in-person meeting, it’s rare for one listener to stare at another, Bailenson explains. The complexities of nonverbal behavior on Zoom, such as exaggerated nodding to signal agreement, also create a cognitive load, Bailenson writes.

While video calls clearly fill a need, they are less than ideal in some situations.

“Zoom is obviously great at what it does—it's the market leader, and we no longer say ‘video conferencing,’ we just say ‘Zoom,’” said Ashlee Ammons, co-founder of Mixtroz, a software company that facilitates group networking using real-time data to create meaningful connection among people. But Zoom was built for small, internal meetings, or for broadcasting one speaker to many people, without much attention to human engagement, she said. “In the technology age, people need a little bit more help, so that they remember how to be human, essentially.”

Mixtroz helps people to be human, Ammons said. When the startup first launched, it was focused on helping people connect at in-person events, but it shifted more toward virtual interactions. Sometimes, attempts to connect through video platforms are clumsy, so Mixtroz functions like a good host at a dinner party, connecting people based on their interests or experiences, she explained. Attendees answer real-time questions such as how long they’ve worked at the company, so the event organizer can group people together and facilitate conversation.

Making video meetings less difficult

Such applications may help take the pressure off video call platforms to meet all needs. But for everyday team meetings, how can you make them less tiresome?

“A lot of it has to do with humanizing the experience,” Ammons said. “We like to think of technology first and humans second. And I really think that people need to think about that flipped around. It needs to be humans first—what serves them best? And then use technology to aid that.”

Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2022 found that 41% of the workers surveyed felt more isolated when working remotely, suggesting that companies consider using engaging virtual social events or other events that allow workers to bond with their colleagues.

Mary Elizabeth Elkordy, president and founder of Elkordy Global Strategies, said that with an all-remote team, getting people to feel connected to each other was difficult. So they started having lunch together on Zoom periodically to play funny videos or share funny stories, and they also schedule people to have coffee together remotely just to chat—covering the cost of Uber Eats for coffee.

Strategies for defeating Zoom fatigue in virtual meetings

Ammons agreed that building meetings around lunch can help. “That's a great opportunity to send people a gift card so that they can order lunch at the same time and then be ready to talk,” she said. “It’s mimicking what would happen in person from home. And, probably on a subliminal level, it shows people that you care about their time,” because you’re combining the meeting with something they would need to do anyway, she said.

Giving people space to vent or share what’s on their minds can also be helpful. “When we have our weekly calls, I give people the opportunity to just air it out and kind of de-stress from the week,” Elkordy said. She has built in time for people to share, whether it’s something positive or negative, in a safe space where they’re not going to be judged, she said. Her company has also used Zoom to offer online meditation sessions to help people de-stress.

How structure can help

Although it may seem counterintuitive, building some structure into Zoom meetings may make them less taxing.

For example, set an agenda and stick to it. “If you say we're going to have five minutes for this topic, 10 minutes for this topic, 30 minutes for this topic, and you stay to that . . . people generally appreciate that,” Ammons said. “They know what to expect.”

You can also make someone responsible for keeping on schedule, and someone else responsible for redirecting the conversation when it veers off topic, Ammons said. “In a virtual and hybrid world now, structure is key. Whereas in our other world, it wasn't so focused. It was: Let's just throw people together and see what happens.”

As teams have come to rely more on Zoom, Ammons said, “One of the positives I see coming from this is that meetings in some spaces have gotten more succinct. It's like, ‘Let's get on a meeting, discuss what we need to discuss, and then get off so we can go back to life,’ instead of the lingering that can sometimes happen at in-person events.”

Preparation is key

Preparation for a meeting may be more important than it used to be. “I think in this era, you need to be specific about: Why is the meeting happening? And what is the actual goal of this meeting?” Ammons said.

Jessica Gilmartin, head of revenue marketing at Asana, agreed. “At Asana, we have this culture of thoughtfulness around how to hold a meeting and when to hold the meeting,” she said. If there’s no agenda, they cancel the meeting. Gilmartin has her team members do a periodic meeting purge, canceling those that aren’t needed. “If I'm not valuable in a meeting, I stop attending. So I also encourage everyone on my team, if they're sort of attending a meeting just because they were invited, they should really think about: Do they need to be there?”

To keep meetings productive, Gilmartin has a pre-read before every meeting, which involves sharing a message beforehand that includes the context and links to any essential documents. Then, when the meeting happens, “we encourage everybody to be camera-on and to be present, and to have discussions instead of readouts,” she said.

One problem Ammons said comes up often is: “When you're on a Zoom meeting that's hours long, it's so much easier to tune out, because you can still be on camera, but you can be answering Slack messages or emails, you can be taking your brain away from the content that's right in front of you.”

Give employees on Zoom calls a break — literally

The Asana Anatomy of Work Index found that this type of multitasking is common: 52% of workers have increased the amount of multitasking they do in virtual meetings.

To combat the tendency to tune out, tell people up front that there will be breaks in the middle to give them time to walk around, stretch, or check messages, Ammons suggested.

Also consider other forms of communication. For example, because Gilmartin has team members in seven time zones, she uses more asynchronous communication than she might otherwise. “If it’s a status meeting, or if it's a one-to-many communication, we'll record ourselves giving some kind of update and send it out, and people can review it on their own time,” she said.

“I think people that have smaller teams, or people that have teams all in one time zone, have had the crutch of, ‘Hey, I could just hold a meeting and get everybody together,’” Gilmartin said.

Of course, face time is sometimes necessary. “In situations where it is highly collaborative brainstorming, then everybody needs to be at their desk with their cameras on, so that they can be fully present,” Gilmartin said. But some meetings don’t require cameras to be on. “For example, if it's an all hands, where you don't have to be sitting at your desk, turn the camera off and grab some weights, and just exercise for a little bit,” Gilmartin said she tells her team. “You can still be active listening, while also getting a much-needed break from sitting at a table.”

The same goes for one-on-one meetings in some cases. “Reach out to the person in advance and ask if the screen is needed, and if no screen is needed, then both of you should get on a phone and take a walk,” Gilmartin said.

Elkordy agreed. "I think it's about taking breaks. Pick up the phone, switch it up, go for a walk,” she said.

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