We've all seen our colleagues' cats, we're familiar with their kids' music lesson progress, and we've had a year where video conferencing has enhanced our understanding of our colleagues as people. It's also been a year of deep video conferencing fatigue – also known as "Zoom fatigue."
Microsoft Research found that after 30 to 40 minutes, people experience cognitive fatigue in video conferencing meetings. The U.S. workforce has had nearly a year of trying to pay attention during multiple daily virtual meetings, many of which go longer than 35 minutes.
“The reason behind this fatigue isn’t necessarily because the technology isn’t helpful, but because many behaviors are starting to feel repetitive, exhausting and tedious – like having back-to-back-to-back video calls or constantly switching between a mountain of apps," said Bobby Beckmann, general manager of meeting solutions at videoconferencing equipment provider Lifesize.
How to balance the need for remote collaboration with video conferencing fatigue is becoming an increasing concern for workplaces. There are both behavioral and technical solutions.
Behavioral Solutions for Video Conferencing Fatigue
The behavioral fix centers around three recommendations: Reduce the time in meetings, be more proactive about taking breaks and, finally, see if videoconferencing is entirely necessary.
The first tip: Avoid back-to-back meetings. Microsoft Research found that research subjects logged higher levels of brain waves associated with stress when in video meetings, especially once the meetings took up more than two hours a day.
The researchers think several factors could be contributing to video conferencing fatigue: having to focus continuously on the screen to track speakers and absorb the relevant information they're sharing; reduced nonverbal cues that normally help people read the room or pick up social cues; and screen sharing with several tiny squares to try and read for face-to-face interaction.
"When working from anywhere, particularly not in a traditional office environment, it is critical for employees to be mindful about taking breaks," said Kara Korte, director of product management for unified communications company TetraVX. "A quick walk around the block, on the treadmill, a few staircase climbs, standing and stretching or whatever is accessible helps reset and refocus the mind and does wonders for productivity."
Microsoft 365 Vice President Jared Spataro also recommends "taking regular breaks every two hours to let your brain recharge, limiting virtual meetings to 30 minutes, or punctuating long meetings with small breaks when possible." Consider scheduling meetings for 20 or 50 minutes rather than 30 or 60 minutes, and then use the extra 10 minutes to get up, stretch and not look at a screen.
Finally, work with teams to figure out what alternatives to videoconferences can be effective for different collaborative tasks. Maybe a meeting can be an email query and response; maybe a quick phone call accomplishes the same conversation as a video call would; maybe there's a rule like "no video after 4 p.m. local time" to allow participants to rest their eyes while still listening and responding as appropriate.
Technical Solutions for Video Conferencing Fatigue
The technical fixes for virtual meeting fatigue focus on examining how people work – examining what applications they're using and how long they're using them and how well applications are integrated to reduce the cognitive load of task switching.
"To increase engagement and reduce fatigue, it’s crucial that organizations explore new strategies and solutions to streamline remote processes, create more immersive experiences and reduce the time needed for daily tasks," Beckmann said.
Both Slack and Microsoft Teams have tried to address this by offering technical solutions to enable keeping more workflows within the chat workspaces themselves. Slack provides a way to integrate third-party apps into the cloud service so people can share files, run data analytics or work within office applications while collaborating with others.
Microsoft has been upfront about positioning Teams as the center of end-user workflow; it's also now moving into offering tools to optimize employee experience in a collaborative workspace in a way that minimizes virtual collaboration fatigue. Microsoft Viva, announced early this month, is the company's employee experience portal. The platform’s Viva Insights tool allows end users to protect break times and boost other forms of collaboration beyond video chat. Viva Insights will also allow managers to keep an eye on their team members and spot meeting overload before it overtakes everyone's schedules.
There are also tools to monitor Zoom usage within an enterprise and search for usage trends that could point to dreaded Zoom fatigue or meeting overload. Last June, business intelligence platform company Domo launched its Zoom Productivity Tracker App.
“With the massive growth of Zoom usage in our own organization, having an easy way to understand trends such as how many meetings are taking place, how long they are lasting and how many people are participating lets me know the impact of this technology to the everyday work of our teams, and it also allows us to ensure we’re taking the right steps in supporting their day-to-day productivity,” said Eric Zimmerman, Domo’s vice president of IT infrastructure, at launch time.
The ultimate focus for these enterprise tools is to shape human behaviors, Beckmann said. "Through investing in personalized applications and integrations, organizations can create a more dynamic and productive work environment for their employees that will increase engagement, reduce burnout and last long beyond the pandemic."