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Like it or hate it, Zoom videoconferencing software may be the biggest workplace technology to emerge as a result of the pandemic.

When mandated remote work led to an almost immediate worldwide abandonment of in-person meetings, Zoom and other platforms like it allowed work teams to keep in contact virtually. But while it offered many advantages, hours of Zoom-ing per day left workers drained — and heralded the nascency of the term “Zoom fatigue.”

With the issue gaining traction across organizations and their remote workforces, Jeffrey Bailenson, a professor and founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, decided to take a deep dive into the phenomenon.

The result of that effort can be found in his article “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue,” which appeared in the American Psychological Association’s Technology Mind and Behavior journal. It’s the first peer-reviewed article to analyze so-called Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective.

He proposed four main reasons for Zoom fatigue:

Staring contest: The Brady Bunch-style configuration, with meeting attendees lined up and staring through the computer camera re-creates the feeling of public speaking — one of people’s biggest phobias, he says in the article. In addition, depending on the size of the computer monitor and if the Zoom screen is in full view, co-workers’ heads can seem abnormally large. In a normal situation, you’re only that close to people if you’re going to fight them or mate with them. The end result is high stress, he intimates.

Man in the mirror: The default setting on most video platforms is to show a self-view of how participants look during the conference. It’s as if a person was looking in the mirror constantly, which is highly unnatural. Bailenson says studies suggest that when you see a reflection of yourself, you’re more critical of yourself.

Playing to the stands: In face-to-face meetings, subtle nonverbal cues are easy to pick up on, according to the author. In video chats, it’s much harder, so people work to make noticeable gestures — nodding in an exaggerated manner, putting their thumbs up. Taking turns to talk must be done deliberately. All of that increases our cognitive load, i.e., it takes extra effort and energy, he says.

Glued to your seat: In an in-person meeting, attendees are free to make large gestures, move their body or even pace the room. In videoconferences, people often feel constrained to sit still directly in front of the screen, whereas research suggests that people think better when they’re moving, Bailenson notes.

Bailenson, in an email exchange with Remote Report, offered some suggested remedies for Zoom fatigue and special advice for managers.

Remote Report: What made you want to examine “Zoom fatigue”? Was it something you experienced yourself?

Jeremy Bailenson: One week into shelter-in-place last year, I was talking to a BBC reporter and had an “aha” moment. She had asked me for a quote and scheduled a Zoom call. About 10 minutes into the Zoom, I realized that there was no reason to use video. After the call ended, I immediately wrote an op-ed on Zoom fatigue that was published a few days later in The Wall Street Journal.

RR: What are your recommendations to combat Zoom fatigue?

JB: There are a few steps people can take right now to help combat fatigue. First, right-click your self-video and select “hide self-view.” It makes a huge difference.

Turn off the video and turn away from the screen, at least part of the time. It will take a few days to get used to it — we have all gotten used to the check and balance of real-time nonverbal feedback — but you will feel better over time.

Third, especially in one-on-one meetings where the other face is very large once you have removed the self-view, I shrink the size of the Zoom screen so that it does not take up the entire monitor. This way the gazing faces are smaller and less imposing.

[In another interview, Bailenson also recommended positioning an external camera farther away to allow meeting attendees to move or even pace, as you might do in a real meeting. Workers can also take audio-only breaks to move about and give themselves a rest, he advises.]

RR: Do you have specific recommendations for managers, as opposed to general participants?

JB: While every workplace is different, I can share some of my current practices. First of all, I have managed to reduce my video calls to about two per day instead of nine or 10, which is where I was at in the beginning of Covid.

Second, remember that bosses get to choose how often they want to Zoom versus call, and whether or not video is on or off. Employees don’t have the same luxury and often are forced to spend more time in the spotlight. As a manager, I didn’t realize this until my colleagues made it clear to me.

Shared asynchronous documents such as Google Docs and Slack have helped, and I also take a lot of very short phone calls — about five minutes is usually enough for a meeting. I take additional Zoom calls where the rule is audio only and we are leveraging the screen-sharing function of Zoom.

RR: Do you think we should return to phone calls for most tasks?

JB: Sometimes we need Zoom — for example, the screen-sharing function is amazing, and just can’t be done with a traditional phone call. For these instances, I recommend audio-only Zoom calls. Other times, we need a quick check-in, and a five-minute phone call works just fine.

RR: A manager in one of our articles claimed that videoconferencing has in fact brought her employees closer, because they’ve replaced faceless, anonymous conference calls with video calls. Do you have a reaction?

JB: I think that is great to hear. My research shows fatigue in general, but the findings are not universal, and if video calls are working for you, then by all means stick with it.

RR: What would be your major recommendations to videoconferencing platforms?

JB: My wish list for the tech companies is to:

  • Not make the default setting “show self-view.” We should opt in to see our own video sent back to us in real time, not have that be the norm.
  • Implement a maximum head size on the grid. In this way, one never is close up to a huge head staring at them. This is easy, given the computer vision algorithms already know where your head is (otherwise they would not be able to change the virtual background).
  • Maintain the same grid for everyone — keep spatial arrays consistent, so that there is common ground for conversationalists.

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