Coronavirus crisis

Zoom fatigue is real and it’s costly

The Zoom experiment failed. The fallout is erasing all the benefits of remote work, making everyone exhausted and unproductive. -- but there's a better way.

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Coronavirus crisis

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A viral pandemic swept the globe. More people started working from home. Everybody started using Zoom.

Wait, what? Why?

It turns out that using Zoom for all large meetings -- or even medium-size meetings -- is a terrible, horrible, counterproductive idea.

In theory, it's great. Everybody can see and hear colleagues at once and you can have "face to face" meetings while everyone is working from their homes.

[ Related: Videoconferencing vendors meet demands with free versions ]

In practice, Zoom fatigue, combined with the amount of time all these Zoom meetings takes, is doing more harm than good.

Zoom fatigue -- the feeling of being drained after Zoom meetings -- is caused by a wide range of technological and psychological factors:

  • During video calls, latency varies, so conversations can be halting and awkward, causing crosstalk. Studies show that a delay makes others seems less friendly.
  • It may be stressful to see video of yourself while in a meeting.
  • The brain works overtime to make sense of video and audio that's out of sync
  • Subconsciously, the brain perceives that everyone is looking at you. It's like a meeting where everyone looks at you, even when other people are talking.
  • Video creates close to eye contact, but not actual eye contact, which can be anxiety-provoking.
  • Seeing many faces at once causes mental overload, because the brain devotes a huge amount of "processing power" to quickly recognize, read and watch a human face, and switching between dozens of faces for several hours a day is massively taxing on the brain.
  • Studies reveal that people focus less on content and more on whether they like a person, when they interact over video.
  • People tend to be less trusting and less understanding over video.
  • People feel pressure to keep eyes glued to the screen, instead of checking or writing notes and doing other natural things for processing information.

Zoom fatigue is real.

[ Related: 5 lessons companies should learn about working at home ]

Why are we doing this, anyway?

The number of daily Zoom users jumped from 10 million in December to over 300 million in April.

When most of this growth happened, Zoom was a slightly more specialized, slightly easier-to-use and significantly less secure platform for videoconferencing than alternatives, yet the herd mentality drove everyone to mindlessly use it.

I've been working "remotely" for 16 years, as have millions of people. Professionals who work in offices often meet every day with people who are not physically present. Large companies have multiple locations, and meetings between people in different locations is common. People meet with clients, partners, customers and service providors remotely all the time. This is nothing new. We have remote meetings for years without Zoom overuse and Zoom fatigue.

My working theory as to why we're all using Zoom so much is this: People who don't like remote work have been forced to do it, and they're the ones driving Zoom usage.

Over time, the choice for who works in offices and who works remotely -- who works at headquarters and who works in remote branch offices; who is accustomed to meeting with people in real life and who got used to meeting people remotely -- is biased in favor of personality types.

In other words, in general and on average, the self-driven introspective introverts have pushed for remote or work-from-home status for themselves and largely got it. Many of us have sacrificed higher pay and status for the privilege to work from home or, as in my case, abroad and traveling.

The extroverts, the gut-feel leaders, the people who need to "read the room" in meetings and feel propelled by having co-workers around them have resisted remote work, and fought for the priveledge of working in the office and, if possible, at headquarters.

An equilibrium existed, where in general both office and remote workers were happy with their workplace status.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this equilibrium, forcing the office work fans -- including the bosses, managers, executives and leaders -- to work remotely. They lunged at the thing that seemed like it could come closest to reproducing the benefits of working in an office -- the face-to-face meetings, the non-verbal communication, the checking in on subordinates and all the rest.

Great in theory; counterproductive in practice.

OK, so what's the alternative?

You can listen to podcasts for hours without fatigue or other problems, yet one hour on Zoom leaves you exhausted. Instead of Zoom, just do low-latency audio phone calls instead by default.

I think a good rule of thumb is to keep Zoom calls restricted to four people or fewer and 30 minutes or shorter. And even with four people, do email if you can, phone calls if you must and Zoom only if there's some really good reason for it.

One problem with phone calls is that if you're meeting with more than four people, it's often not clear who's talking. That's why we need a way to have what are primarily voice calls where the speaker is identified.

One solution -- which I think is a major part of the future of internet communication -- is to embrace the avatar. An avatar is a fake version of you, which mimics your facial expressions and body language in real time, but is not a video of you. Avatars reduce latency, identify the speaker, simplify the visual information to process and remove the pressure of being on camera.

Another way to look at avatar-based "videoconferencing" is that it's basically a conference call where the speaker is identified and the most basic non-verbal communication is conveyed. Also: You get to make eye contact with the avatar, which is less stressful.

A company called recently launched LoomieLive, which lets you create an avatar of yourself, which represents you in video conferences. It conveys your facial expressions in real time, but keeps looking at the "camera" while you get coffee and read your notes. LoomieLive works on Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Webex, and Microsoft Teams.

There's also evidence that Apple may embrace avatars for video conferencing. Apple's WWDC announcement advertises their June 22 virtual conference by showing three Memoji characters sitting in front of MacBook laptops. Memoji's are the branded avatars that Apple users currently enjoy via Apple Messages.

Normally this would mean nothing. But Apple has a reputation for advertising conferences with cryptic but meaningful symbolism. It would be uncharacteristic of Apple to show Memoji in front of laptops unless they were set to announce support for some version of that scenario.

It seems reasonable to predict that Apple will announce the following:

  1. Face ID for laptops (which could control avatars)
  2. Memoji support on laptops; and -- given the Zoom craze
  3. Multi-user meetings that support Memoji

Apple, which is known to be working on augmented reality glasses, has patents that enable 3D avatars to sit around a virtual conference table. People can meet and speak to each other's avatars, all while making "eye contact." They call it a bionic virtual meeting room."

Even Facebook is getting into the act. Facebook is rolling out cartoonish avatars for US users to use in Messenger and in Stories. (They were previously available in the other English speaking countries and Europe.) I think it's only a matter of time before they add these to group messaging video conferencing.

The big picture is that Zoom overuse isn't working. Zoom fatigue is killing productivity. It's a good idea to recognize this at your organization and lead the charge against Zoom overuse. While people are working remotely, favor email, phone calls or avatar-based video calls. Keep all meetings to a minimum.

Let's all stop feeding the Zoom beast and get back to work.