After she ended the 11th online video conference of a day in late September, BBR Music Group vp marketing JoJamie Hahr experienced one of her worst cases of COVID-19-era exhaustion.
“I was feeling more physically tired, when all I did was sit at a table all day on my computer,” laments Hahr.
The culprit is a newly developed hazard of working from home. It’s increasingly referred to as “Zoom fatigue,” a frustrating side effect of spending hours a day doing business through a video screen. Functions that once were handled in person are now being conducted from miles away — sometimes continents apart. In the beginning, many found the prospect scary and/or exciting, maybe even a little futuristic. But as the weeks have turned into months and the screen time has piled up, the novelty has worn off.
“When the pandemic started and everybody was working from home, we had an increase in efficiency because people didn’t commute and they were really motivated and they were just very focused,” notes Onerpm CEO/founder Emmanuel Zunz. “The first two or three months, maybe four months, we were extremely focused and efficient. But I think we’re starting to see diminishing returns from working from home. We’re used to using new tools, but I think they’re less effective when you’re constantly on them.”
London-based Myna CEO Nigel Cannings calls himself a “long-term sufferer” of Zoom fatigue, removing headphones to point out the groove in his hair caused by the headband. Readers who have not experienced virtual-conference burnout can get a feel for it through an alternate route, he suggests.
“Just stay up all night and periodically bang your head very hard against a wall, maybe once every 20 minutes or so,” jokes Cannings. “That will probably give you a similar sort of feeling by the end of the day.”
Zoom fatigue is caused by sitting for long periods of time while being subjected to multiple stimuli, all of which beg for attention. Small movements from a dozen people on a video screen pull focus away from a speaker. The occasional frozen screen or dropouts damage the flow of conversation. It’s also easy to get distracted by what’s not on the screen — children, dogs or curiosity about what else might be in the speaker’s living room. Plus, it’s jarring to see your own facial reactions in real time and be hyper-cognizant of the visual messages you might be sending as you listen. All that’s happening while you try to pay attention to the speaker’s words. If that’s not enough, the surroundings in your own home, such as the TV or a spouse, can create further distractions, particularly when the Zoom schedule balloons to six or seven meetings — or, God forbid, 11 of them — in a single day.
“Zoom fatigue is real,” says Warner Music Nashville senior vp radio streaming Kristen Williams. “You want some hours of your day where you don’t feel like you have to be performing, that you can just relax for a second.”
Knowledge is power, and once Zoom fatigue is understood, there are steps organizations can take to reduce it. Among the suggestions:
• Develop an agenda before the meeting. Share it with all the participants, and stick to it.
• Limit Zoom meetings to 45 minutes when possible. When they must exceed that, include short breaks for participants to move around.
• Ask people to turn off devices and stay focused. “We get the best from everybody that way,” says Hahr, “and we can get through the meetings faster.”
• Engage people by name during the conference, and periodically ask them questions, providing incentive for them to interact. “You have to be ready to call upon people so that they all can contribute something to the meeting,” notes Zunz.
• Make the meetings entertaining. A happy hour approach can help. If your company has an artist or other creative type who’s willing to perform or give a short pep talk, that can also provide some uplift.
• Block out windows of time — perhaps 15-30 minutes — between meetings, allowing time to catch up on other items, clear the mind or move around.
• Remind people to mute their screens when they’re not speaking. If someone is typing notes, their keystrokes can actually distract others on the call.
Cannings’ product, myna.com, was designed to reduce or eliminate note-taking. It allows the user to record the entire meeting and receive an email roughly 15 minutes later with a transcript, the full audio and video, a word cloud that highlights the keywords from the meeting and a summary that bullets the most important topics that were covered.
“I noticed when I was trying to speak on the telephone that I wasn’t able to take decent notes,” says Cannings, who began developing the product even before video conferencing became prominent. “And if I was taking decent notes, I wasn’t properly engaged on the telephone. I just wanted to be able to have a record of the telephone calls that I’ve had, something which I can search really easily.”
Even after the coronavirus era ends, video calls — whether via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Skype or some other platform — are likely with us to stay. Managing Zoom fatigue will be an ongoing challenge.
“We’re learning the balance of when to do a video conference, when to do an audio call, when to push the envelope and try to do something face-to-face,” says Williams.
But the biggest educational hurdle will be honing methods to keep participants involved and on point.
“If everybody’s engaged,” says Hahr, “we get done quicker.”
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