Many of us have been working from home for a while, and there are real benefits. We can sleep a little longer since there is no commute. Dressing for work is much simpler. Home offices can be pet friendly every day. There is an endless supply of snacks. So why are we so tired at the end of the workday?
Consider virtual meeting fatigue. Once used mostly for webinars and times when geography kept people from meeting in person, the pandemic has elevated virtual platforms to how we interact in many areas of our lives. It’s not unusual to use a virtual platform to attend multiple meetings and maybe a webinar or training during the day, then informal virtual gatherings after work and, over the weekend, to catch up with family and friends.
An increasing number of studies provide clues about why virtual meetings can be exhausting.
In a recent article in National Geographic, Julie Sklar writes, “Humans communicate even when they’re quiet.” When we meet in person, our brains are programmed to pull information from a variety of cues: body language, eye contact, posture, even intake of breath as someone gets ready to talk. On video conferences, we strain and hyper-focus to gather information from the heads and shoulders of other participants and small, sometimes poorly lit, images of facial expressions. There is also the Brady Bunch experience of gallery views, requiring participants to try to keep up with tiny videos of many people.
Technical issues like the internet going down, audio delays, echoes, frozen video, and muting/unmuting, are not only distracting but disrupt the flow that we expect from in-person communication. Plus, they can make meetings much longer.
Virtual meetings are also roughly equivalent to meeting multiple people in different rooms. Participants are distracted by details of backgrounds, like furniture, colors, plants, sounds, even book titles.
Italian management professor Gianpiero Petriglieri, who has researched the virtual meeting fatigue phenomenon, captured the experience like this: “It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.”
What can employers and employees do to help with this fatigue?
- Encourage others to turn off their ability to see their own image. Constantly seeing yourself can be unsettling.
- Consciously vary the types of communications tools you use: text for somethings, phone calls for others, as well as intranet and email. Encourage employees to read updates and comments in writing.
- From time to time, turn off your camera, but be sure you remain engaged. Keep in mind that the purpose of video conferencing it to see and be seen, so you may wish to use this option judiciously.
- Beware of the draw of multi-tasking while on video conferences. It’s less likely that, in an in-person meeting, an employee would email, check their phone, and eat lunch all at the same time. Work to focus your attention on the content of the meeting itself.
- Allow employees to call in occasionally rather than use the video platform. Attending by phone can allow someone to stand up and walk around, things that are good for creativity and general health.
Even with its downsides, video conferencing has allowed for high productivity and a version of connecting in tough times. Chances are, it’s here to stay, and businesses will adapt it to meet their unique needs.