We’re lucky technology does such a great job of connecting us when working from home, but it’s also wearing us down.
You’ve likely never been more familiar with the underside of your colleagues’ chin. Working from home means we’ve had to adjust the way we communicate with coworkers. For many, that means back-to-back meetings with face-to-face screen conversations.
When we converse with more than one other person in real life, we don’t usually stare at all of their faces at once. But this prolonged staring isn’t the only reason we’re crumbling into an exhausted heap at the day’s end. HRM has rounded up some interesting explanations for why online communication can be so tiring and looks at how we can reignite our energy levels to make meaningful connections in a virtual workplace.
When you’re in the physical presence of another person, you’ve got a lot more to work off than just their words. You feel their presence through body language, smell, and touch (not in physical distancing times of course). Those things don’t translate through your computer screen.
“Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” says Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor at Insead, in an article for BBC.
He further explains in a tweet saying, “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”. This is what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’ – when someone has two or more contradictory thoughts, attitudes or values.
Not only do we exert more mental effort coming to terms with the presence of those we’re on a call with, we’re managing the cognitive load of monitoring our own presence. Be honest, how much time do you spend in a video call looking at yourself?
There might be a little vanity at play here, just like how your eye darts straight to yourself in a group photo. We can’t help but check how we’re coming across. We’re thinking about the light we’re sitting in and which angle is most flattering for our faces. Also, we’re aware of the fact that we’re giving colleagues a peep into our private life.
There’s a lot pulling our attention from the actual conversation that’s taking place and repeatedly shifting our focus is draining.
Losing conversational cadences
The way we talk to each other is different in virtual conversations too. We try to recreate the incidental conversations we’re used to having at work, but they feel a little more forced than usual. Also, considering we’ve been doing far less than usual, our small talk fodder is dwindling.
In lieu of new information, we often reach for trusty housekeeping talk, such as ‘can you hear me now?’, ‘Sorry, my internet is slow today’, ‘I wasn’t sure if you were calling me or if I was calling you!’.
Silence is another thing that’s lost in video communication, says Petriglieri. In real life, silence can be a powerful tool to drive conversations further and is part of their natural rhythm. When there’s silence on the other end of a video chat however, our minds immediately go to an anxious place: ‘Did I say something wrong?’, ‘Is their computer frozen?’, ‘Is my internet down?’.
Not only do we feel anxious, Petriglieri points to research which suggests that in video or telephone communication delays of even 1.2 seconds cause us to view the other person negatively; we think of them as less attentive.
All of this means we’re not able to easily have conversations the same way we do in person – we have to think about it more. And this is before you take into account the difficulties of communicating with someone whose screen is actually constantly freezing or glitching.
The absence of meaning
Even though we’re staring at a lot of faces, we’re not able to make meaningful eye contact. Instead, we have to stare at a specific part of our screen to give the impression of eye contact, says Norm Friesen, professor of educational technology at Boise State University in an article for The Conversation.
“Phenomenology and psychology both emphasize the importance and complexity of eye contact,” he says. He refers to a quote from philosophy professor Beata Stawarska who says that when we’re making proper eye contact with someone, this person is “attending to your attention while you are attending to hers”.
Friesen adds: “Without overt eye contact and embodied reciprocity, people who videoconference can sometimes feel silently scrutinised or surveilled. A person may worry: Exactly how does the unblinking camera eye show me to others?”
Also, we’re not just having a conversation anymore. Depending on which platform you use, every time you speak your face could be blown up on the entire screen. In a company meeting with lots of attendees, that could make some people feel anxious.
So not only are we having to deal with the subconscious tweaks we’re accommodating in a virtual conversation, we’re also having to manage more overt emotions, like nervousness. Doing that multiple times each day can be extremely emotionally draining.
“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”. – Gianpiero Petriglieri
We’re using it to socialise too
To bring the social aspects of a workplace culture online, many organisations are hosting virtual trivia, happy hours and coffee catch ups. These are great initiatives but they’re also contributing to the problem. Virtual catch ups are also how we’ve been socialising with friends and family.
Even though what we’re doing is technically leisure, our brains are still working overtime. Petriglieri used the example of watching TV, something many of us do to switch off. When we’re on a social Zoom or Skype call, he says it’s “like you’re watching television and television is watching you”.
We feel like “living headshots”, says Dr Suzanne Degges-White in an article for Psychology Today, who likens a virtual happy hour at work with the same level of exhaustion you might feel from an hour at the gym.
“Even extroverts can feel worn down by the high-intensity virtual connecting,” she says.
Consider reiterating to employees that these social events are voluntary and make them consistent, so if someone chooses to opt out one week, they know they can join next time around.
Physically there, mentally gone
Research suggests that the more people that are involved in a task, the less responsibility each individual feels to contribute – it’s called the Ringelmann Effect. French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann tested his theory through an experiment that asked a group of people to pull on a rope, then he asked the same of individuals. People pulled harder when doing so on their own.
So when it comes to video chats, if you’re conducting a company-wide meeting, people are more likely to tune out. As someone charged with presenting or hosting, you’ll notice this and will often have to try even harder to maintain engagement than you would in person.
Disengagement means that not only will people miss out on crucial information, research from Harvard University in 2010 suggests a link between feeling distracted and feeling unhappy. In our current environment, there are already enough factors making people feel unhappy. The way we choose to connect and communicate doesn’t have to be one of them.
Getting over video fatigue
So how can we combat this exhaustion? It’s about striking the right balance between keeping people engaged while not overwhelming them.
The most obvious piece of advice is to have less video meetings – save them for high-value conversations. For when video conferencing is necessary, Sarah Gershman, president of Green Room Speakers, offers this advice for getting participants engaged, in an article for the Harvard Business Review.
- Encourage active listening – HR managers might consider drafting a workplace approach to virtual meetings. Part of that could include a guide to active listening. If you’re having meetings where people are jumping in to make their point again, Gershman says it can help to ask people to reiterate what they’ve just heard before saying their own piece so people don’t feel the need to repeat themselves. This will save time and help you to have more productive conversations.
- Connect the dots – Gershman says meeting hosts should keep an ear out for any common gripes expressed in a meeting, say, a few people say they’re not feeling motivated. Leaders can use this information strategically by saying, “I’ve noticed a few of you have said you’re lacking motivation, how can we combat that?” You’re not bringing anything new to the conversation, she says, but connecting the dots to help staff to see the larger dynamic at play.
- Normalise a wandering mind – After your sixth Zoom meeting for the day, it’s natural that your focus isn’t as sharp. Gershman says it should be okay for people who are tuning back in to say, “I’m sorry, I lost track of the conversation for a moment. Can someone help me understand what we’re focusing on?” Others on the call will likely breathe a silent sigh of relief, she says, as they’ve likely trailed off too.
Another thing HR leaders can do is encourage staff to have a break between each meeting and the next task on their to-do list. Having a mental buffer likes this helps the brain to reset.
When we first went into lockdown it seemed people favoured the face-to-face option of a video call as they grappled with feeling severed from the workplace. However, as we’ve been doing it for many weeks, giving people the option to turn their cameras off is a good way to give them a break from hyper-stimulating conversations.
Degges-White suggests dialling in from your phone every now and then.
“It can be less stressful when you ‘show up’ in voice only…. we can move around and step onto our porch or sit outside in the sunshine. How many of us tend to doodle at meetings? Stare out the window? Make mental to-do lists or grocery lists? When we’re a face on a screen, it’s hard to get away with a little inattention,” she says.
She also suggests taking notes with a pen and paper. This increases information retention and also reduces screen time.
We can’t blame all our fatigue on video calls. A lot of it boils down to the stress and emotional load we’re carrying as we work and live through a pandemic.
Also, video calls are a daily reminder of what we’ve lost. Every time we jump on a call and see our colleague’s face through a screen, we’re forced to remember the reality we’re existing in, and that can be distressing and exhausting.