Video calls via Zoom became a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic for many companies, who suddenly found themselves having to manage a remote, disparate workforce.
During that time many people have become accustomed to the image of their colleagues, spread over a grid on a screen. But for some, the endless parade of video calls has become a bit too much.
HSBC and Citi have introduced so-called “Zoom-Free” days, which set aside a day of the week when employees are not expected to make video calls.
These decisions are not based solely on anecdotal feedback from staff. There is an emerging niche in research into the effects of constant video calling. In addition to Zoom, there are a range of similar tools that businesses use, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex.
Jeremy Bailenson, a professor at Stanford University, has studied the impact that video call overload has had on people, called “Zoom Fatigue.”
“Currently, the medium is designed to enable various forms of exhaustion and fatigue – social, emotional and physical,” Bailenson told The Washington City Times.
His research explored some of the main causes of this fatigue: excessive gaze in the eyes, seeing yourself reflected back to you many hours a day, being tied to a physical location for extended periods of time, and greater difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues.
When this attitude is the only way to meet managers, colleagues and customers, it can take its toll.
Many companies, from large corporations to start-ups, feel the same way. Tech giants TikTok and Salesforce have imposed some restrictions and limits on the number of video meetings their employees hold.
“The team decided not to meet on Friday and we need to give people some time back without the computer,” Terri Moloney, senior director of employee success at Salesforce in Dublin, told The Washington City Times. “That has changed and has become a combination of a wellbeing day and not a meeting day.”
People have stayed just as productive while working from home, if not more, she added. But this can mean blurring the boundary between work and private life and more time behind a computer screen and, in turn, more video calls with colleagues.
Moloney said a no-meeting day is not necessarily a rule to be enforced, but rather it is permission for employees to have time that is entirely theirs, be it on a particular project or to participate. to the company’s wellness initiatives.
“To be honest, having the free space to manage your time and schedule, and knowing you have that flexibility is half the battle,” said Moloney.
British fintech start-up Plum managed a team split between the UK and Greece long before the pandemic.
Chief Executive Victor Trokoudes said it was able to adapt this experience of juggling a distributed workforce to the Zoom era.
“Engineers don’t have meetings on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday in the afternoon. We’ve blocked Zoom meetings so they have time to work and don’t have to jump on a Zoom,” he said.
“The only important thing with the Zoom calls was to really try to focus them on a certain time and leave people open, say in the afternoons, to work more or other days when they don’t have to jump. . “
While some companies may have fewer video calls, the medium doesn’t go away either.
Leighton Hughes, VP of sales for the UK at video conferencing company Pexip, said companies should think carefully about the “etiquette” of video calling.
“Where we’ve seen customers whose users are most engaged is how they have built etiquette into the meeting,” said Hughes.
“The companies are responsible for driving proper conference etiquette when we meet remotely,” he said. “That includes little tricks around the gaps between meetings, the number of people in the meetings.”
Hughes said one of the bigger drivers of people getting tired of video is trying to mimic the traditional on-screen meeting environment.
There is a technical solution for this with a focus on video and audio quality. Pexip recently signed a deal with Nvidia to help process audio and video using AI in a way that adapts and optimizes each conversation to the participants’ visual and audio environment.
This could be filtering background noise or automatically resizing and arranging grids on the screen to reduce cognitive load on viewers.
“We don’t necessarily think meeting fatigue is being driven by the meeting, we just think meeting etiquette and meeting quality need to improve so people feel less fatigued.”
Stanford’s Bailenson said more research needs to be done on the effects of video call overload on people.
Another article he co-authored showed that the effects of Zoom fatigue are more common in women.
He said future research will need to test different variations of video calls to examine how people respond, such as testing some conversations where people cannot see themselves.
“What we need now is more experimental data that varies the types of functions you use in conferences to get a better idea of the psychological mechanisms at play,” he said.