Is Zoom Fatigue a Thing?

How remote work drained me of energy and how I fixed it

Photo by Niklas Hamman - Unsplash
Photo by Niklas Hamman – Unsplash

I’m introvert, and verily so. A test puts me at three standard deviations above the average person in introversion. If accurate, that would mean that I am more introverted than 99.7% of all the people who took that test. So, it was with great relief that I received the news of COVID-induced, social-distancing rules coming into effect at work. I was already working from home one day a week. You know, to do all the serious work that required deep-thinking that I could not get around to doing whilst subjected to the constant din of the office. That one day used to be awesome. It was my best day of the week.

With enforced social-distancing, I settled into a new routine that mirrored my old one. Instead of working four days at the office and one from home, I worked from home four days a week, and went to the office or visited clients one day a week. Then, a curious thing happened: That one day became my new, awesome, best day of the week. The introvert yearned for in-person interaction.

Zoom fatigue sets in

Days, weeks, and months’ worth of staring at the unresponsive faces of colleagues on a computer screen were starting to take their toll. Calling into video conference calls felt like jumping into a pressure cooker. Uncertainty boiling into restlessness, bubbling up as steam, yet unable to escape, trapped under a lid of lethargy.

There was the obvious explanation. It’s all about balance, colleagues offered. Something about being off-balance, and needing to strive and find my new center. Well-meaning, plausible, reasonable even, but as far as advice went, utterly non-actionable.

Then I met Alyxandra “Alyx” Savage.

There are many facets to Zoom fatigue

I was researching the role of founders in startup success when I came across a company that seemed to do employee wellbeing particularly well. Experiencing, admittedly unexpectedly I may add, some negative effects of social distancing myself, I recalled Robert Sargéus, CEO of GESHDO, mentioning in our interview how employing a corporate coach had helped his organization maintain performance and morale high during their Covid-19 lockdowns. So, I asked Robert if I could meet Alyx.

Based on her work helping employees surmount the mental issues resulting from social-distancing, Alyx isolated three distinct, easily identifiable features of office-based interactions that were missing in my typical workday teleconferencing from home, contributing to what I was lumping together as my episode of Zoom fatigue syndrome:

  • Rituals or routines
  • Micro-pauses
  • Feedback from micro-interactions

Better yet, once I identified the issues that caused the most trouble for me, it was relatively easy to take action and address them.

Rituals and routines enhance performance and work-life balance

Early in her career, Alyx understood the importance of rituals, of all places, advising heroin misuse clients. She noticed that as early as during their pre-injection ritual: Applying the tourniquet, mixing the heroin in liquid, and heating the solution in a spoon, the neurochemistry of the body changed. The body was priming itself to receive the shot.

Many of our daily routines prepare our body and mind for performance. Athletes know this well. They may sometimes laugh them off as superstitions, but their locker room rituals really help them get in the zone by the body’s neurochemistry. Alyx calls these neurochemicals your body’s natural performance enhancers.

This is the reason why some people insist on wearing work attire even when they are working from home. It will help get you in performance mode, Alex explained. I balked at the idea. What good is working from home if you can’t wear comfortable clothes? So, she suggested the idea of the work t-shirt instead. And I now keep a couple of t-shirts that I only put on when I am working, and change out of when my workday ends. It signals, both to myself and to others, whether I am on or off-duty, and has subsequently saved me and the family from much unnecessary aggravation.

I also noticed how shaving helps with my concentration for up to three to four hours afterwards. It is a reasonably detail-oriented task, but not too taxing. So, it eases my brain into more demanding tasks. You can tell if I have been writing a lot during a week because I’m clean-shaven most of the time. Unfortunately, I still sport an unruly mop of super-long Covid-hair.

Similarly, I discovered that, pre-COVID, I was using my end-of-day commute drive to unwind, and so I had a more difficult time transitioning out of work mode once I turned my computer off when working from home. My brain literally could not stop working.

On Alyx’s recommendation, I have now adopted the practice of the fake commute: After I turn my computer off, I go walk the dog. It is remarkable how interacting with our furry friends can quickly transition us into a more affectionate mode.

Micro-pauses lubricate conversations

Have you noticed how people rush to fill the vacuum in a conversation? But it’s not really a vacuum. If only you were meeting in person, you’d see the mischievous facial expression, the knowing eye contact, the thoughtful pause. The digital medium is not always transmitting that, worse if you are on mute. That ‘hmm’ and ‘huh’ is meaningful!

This is how Alyx explained why I was usually more tired after an hour on Zoom than after an in-person meeting of equal duration. After simply having transferred our meetings to the digital realm, we now need to adjust their format to the characteristics of the medium.

Aside from instinctively trying to fill in a perceived vacuum, I also noticed how I engaged in less small talk. As a result, digital meetings tend to be more taxing and tightly content-packed.

So, I now consciously assign a couple of minutes for small talk at the beginning of the video session. Also, to compensate for our tendency to fill the vacuum, I also shorten video meetings by 10% compared to their in-person equivalent. Finally, if that hmm or huh is meaningful, then it is worth investing in good equipment, both video, but particularly audio. A good microphone lessens the need for muting, for example.

Micro-interactions give valuable feedback

Another way that I find those hmms and huhs are meaningful, is that they convey non-verbal feedback from audience to speaker. Blind and deaf to non-verbal cues, I have always found making remote presentations that much harder than in-person ones.

Alyx helped me understand how this problem could extend to even beyond making presentations. This is how I understood how some of my teammates felt stressed because, lacking the continuous feedback they were getting from face-to-face interactions, they had no idea about whether they were performing well at their jobs.

To mitigate for this, I arrange for one-to-one calls where I explicitly provided performance-related feedback and emotional support to my team members. We learn as teenagers that being invisible is stressful. Worse, if left unaddressed, it can escalate into anxiety.

Zoom fatigue is real but can be easy to fix

I love having the ability to work remotely. The flexibility to choose when and where to work has done marvels to my quality of life. However, everything in life has its pros and cons. I learned from Alyx how Zoom fatigue really was a thing. According to the science:

  • Rituals are mind hacks that can be used to prime the body and mind for either high performance, or winding-down.
  • Mind the vacuum. Digital meetings tend to be more tightly packed because the reduced scope for small talk and micro-pauses, so adjust meeting length and agenda accordingly.
  • People unconsciously get much of the feedback they crave via micro-interactions. These can be harder to convey in a remote-work setting, resulting in stress or anxiety due to uncertainty about how one is performing. Make sure your teammates feel seen and heard.

Fortunately, after understanding the science behind them, many of the cons I was experiencing from working remotely were relatively easy to address, leaving me with a big net pro.

Read original article in Medium.

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