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We’ve all been adapting to business meetings, sales conversations, and networking events on Zoom. Not to mention what were wryly called Zeders, the virtual Easter dinners, and those newly ubiquitous video Happy Hours.
Some of us are having fun with this sort of Jetsons-ish way of staying connected when we can’t be together physically.
A lot of us are figuring out ways to transfer even more of our work onto online platforms, we’re learning how to use tools like virtual white boards and break-out rooms.
And some of us are sick of it already.
If you’ve had a day of back-to-back-to-back virtual meetings, you might be in that last category.
And you might wonder how a day of sitting at your desk (or at your kitchen table or on your couch) can be so exhausting.
Of course, there’s the stress connected with being cloistered for who-knows-how-long and the concern for friends and family who might be in precarious positions. This is traumatic for a lot of people, and that’s not to be underestimated.
At the same time, many of us are putting in fewer hours on the job than we normally do. There’s no commute time. And that colleague who gets on our last nerve can’t stop by our desk to yammer at us anymore. Why are we so worn out by these online meetings?
It’s partly that the meetings all happen on a flat screen. Instead of being in a conference room, sitting around a table, engaging with others in the real world, we’re watching a two-dimensional image. It’s disconcerting because of what’s sometimes called the sixth sense, proprioception.
Proprioception is our awareness of the position and movement of our own body. It’s how we know where our arms and legs are at any given moment. Our neurons also help us keep track of other people’s bodies and the spatial relationship between us.
Looking at a screen, our non-conscious mind sees some appearance of depth, but not much, and it’s confusing.
Communication expert Nick Morgan told Harvard Business Review this is a survival issue. We’re programmed to keep track of who’s close to us, how close they are, and whether they’re a threat.
So, in a Zoom meeting, he says, “The brain is kind of spinning its wheels trying to figure out where are you in space in relation to me. And so that lack of clear information about depth perception causes our brains to work overtime and that’s one reason why we find video conferencing so tiring.”
You’re exhausted after an hour of Zooming, he says, because your brain is working too hard.
Dr. Morgan recommends against using a green screen or the Zoom platform’s virtual green screen, because it exacerbates that depth perception problem and increases your meeting-mates’ sense of not being quite oriented.
There’s more to this Zoom-fatigue issue, from a management professor at Insead, which calls itself the Business School for the World.
Gianpiero Petriglieri says, “It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence. Our minds are tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting.”
“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.”
Like Nick Morgan, Petriglieri points to the work your brain has to do in these sessions. “Our bodies process so much context, so much information, in encounters, that meeting on video is being a weird kind of blindfolded. We sense too little and can’t imagine enough. That single deprivation requires a lot of conscious effort.”
So, we make the effort. And we wind up depleted by the time we click on “Leave Meeting.”
To be clear, in the hierarchy of available communication channels, video conferencing still beats the alternatives.
I’d rather meet in person anytime, but when that’s not possible, being able to see people’s faces is better than talking without the visual component on a conference call, which in turn is more valuable than an email.
I’m not here to pooh-pooh virtual meetings or start a stampede away from Zoom. I do think it’s useful to pay attention, though, to cautionary notes like these.
Cutting back on screen time doesn’t seem like the right move for me at this point. For better or worse, video meetings are the way to stay in touch now.
And, there are some things we can do to maintain our energy for our virtual events.
I’m finding it helps to take a few minutes before a meeting starts to collect myself. Just to sit still, with my feet on the floor, and breathe so I’m grounded and centered as I start a conversation.
You might give that a try. And here are some other ways to stay energized while Zooming:
- Schedule video meetings so we have a break between them.
- Start with a clear—and limited—agenda.
- Consider how much time the subject really needs, rather than defaulting to an hour-long meeting. Shorter is almost always better.
- Give up multi-tasking. It’s enough effort to pay attention to people in the meeting; don’t add to the overload by writing emails at the same time.
- Get up from the desk and move around before we log in again. Maybe even go outside for a little while and really change the impressions.
Of course, I’m curious about your experience with all this.
Post a comment below to tell us how you’re adapting to the way we’re doing business … and communicating … now.
I am in Zoom/Teams “H – E – double hockey sticks”. But I am grateful for your information (as always) I am going to try to be more aware of these things and hope to improve my constant mental exhaustion.
Keeping meetings shorter really helps, Donna. And each person being pithier makes a difference too. We just don’t have the bandwidth to listen to someone holding forth on Zoom, even someone we like!
Thanks for this information–very helpful.
I’m attending a lot of Zoom webinars, where no one needs to see me or even hear me (and often can’t). In these cases, I join using my smart phone and walk around while I’m listening. Sometimes I do simple chores, like making the bed. I have a pad of paper nearby so I can take notes.
I find this is so much better than sitting at my desk for an hour.
I can imagine that moving around helps, Judith. I sometimes listen to webinar replays when I’m exercising. It feels a lot better than sitting at my desk staring at a screen for an hour.
I think another thing reason that Zoom meetings can feel so unsatisfying is the lack of “incidental” personal connection that Zoom eliminates. It’s not a fault of the technology, but there’s no easy way during a meeting with multiple people to engage one-on-one to exchange pleasantries, look into someone’s eyes, ask them how they’re doing. There is no side comment on the way to the restroom, or a reaction or comment that you don’t necessarily want to share with “the room”. Little things that build human connection. So, we’ve interacted, we’ve “seen” people, but we don’t really feel the satisfaction of connection. I think that perhaps some of the exhaustion (other than having lots of back-to-back meetings) is that lack of satisfaction.
I know some people are making a point to do more than just focus on business, and that’s good. Trust and caring are built by non-task interactions, and that’s the best we can at the moment. But it’s still not the same as “being there”.
Looking forward to the time when we’ll be able to be safely “in the room” physically.
Such a good point, John. You’re right, in a Zoom meeting we don’t have those little interpersonal interactions (many of them nonverbal) that I think of as social lubricant. Without them, a meeting can feel stiff and dry.
It’ll be so interesting to see how we go back to in-the-room-together meetings. My guess is we’ll be using a hybrid approach for a long time. Maybe forever.