Updated: Feb 11, 2021
With the advent of coronavirus and many people and teams now working remotely, recent articles in the popular press have drawn attention to a phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.”, While a full-fledged syndrome has not yet been elaborated, anecdotal feedback suggests that the increased use of Zoom and other online collaboration platforms can, for many people, lead to marked fatigue, low energy, and a perceived depletion of cognitive resources.
Given that Zoom and similar platforms are likely to remain a ubiquitous tool in organizational life for the foreseeable future, the question then becomes what organizations and individuals can do to mitigate some of their more deleterious effects. It turns out that neuroscience offers some useful insights!
The following are my suggestions, based on neuroscience research, for reducing Zoom fatigue:
1. Have everyone turn on their video – Most of the press coverage on Zoom fatigue has focused on the idea that Zoom fosters an over-stimulation of the senses: the thinking is that the brain has to work harder to keep track of all the visual stimuli and its information-processing ability becomes overwhelmed, leading to faster fatigue. As a result, some experts have suggested turning off the video function, or at least using it sparingly during Zoom sessions.
While this is an intriguing suggestion, it is not consistent with the evidence. As neuroscience research shows, a remarkable percentage of the cerebral cortex is devoted to processing visual information - more than all the other senses combined. Even more, processing this visual information is critical to our ability to interpret and respond to a highly complex social environment. We implicitly consider a myriad of social cues whenever we interact, regardless of whether we are online or in person: who is present, how they are showing up, what their mood is, where their gaze is directed, etc. And much of our ability to construe emotional intent is not just conveyed through tone of voice and word choice, but also by means of somatic movements produced by the hands, head, and especially the face. As such, relinquishing the ability to detect these visual cues may actually be anxiety-provoking and cause fatigue, rather than the other way around.
Since pretty much all aspects related to communication in the brain – the auditory, visual, cognitive, and affective processes – can better engage with cameras on, it’s a sound practice to use the video, whenever appropriate to do so.
2. Hide your own self-face view – This advice may sound surprising given the above discussion of visual information, but neuroscientists have learned that humans seem to be hard-wired to focus on their own faces rather than the faces of other people. The reasons for this are not well-understood, but it is thought to be a critical component of self-awareness. Self-face recognition begins before the age of two, although self-face recognition is not unique to humans: indeed, there are several species of animals that are able to recognize their own faces, including Asian elephants and rhesus monkeys.
The problem with Zoom is that it provides, via the video interface, a constant mirror of the self-face - unless the self-view window is hidden (which can easily be done). When the self-view is enabled, the result is an involuntary focus on how the visual self appears, which is not normally present in meetings or conversations. This focus is not an indicator of vanity or narcissism, but rather reflects the wiring of the human brain and its inherent preoccupation with the self – a dynamic the technology accidentally stumbles into. I recommend that the self-view be hidden, simply because it may distract us with our own image, preventing a more efficient focus on the faces and bodies of those we are speaking to – and requiring extra effort in order to do so (resulting in “Zoom fatigue”). This is particularly true for those in the helping professions and teachers.
3. Rethink your teams – This last piece of advice is not from neuroscience per se, but from the solid body of behavioral science research on virtual teams. The composition of teams becomes even more critical in virtual contexts, because the role of personality traits and shared values become more apparent. Virtual teams whose members score highly in conscientiousness perform more effectively, as well as teams where there is a high degree of trust between leaders and subordinates. It stands to reason that teams with low conscientiousness and low trust would be unduly stressful and require the expenditure of even more cognitive and emotional resources. This could be contributing the the Zoom fatigue phenomenon.
Covid-19 has provided both challenges and opportunities for most workplaces – the challenges are clear, but the opportunity to do the overdue work of ensuring teams have the right members based on mutual learning, trust, and dependability, has never been greater.
So those are my three tips for reducing Zoom fatigue. If you have any questions or comments, or would like to arrange a consultation for your organization, please contact me via the Contact Us module on the website.
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