Why “Zoom Culture” Is Turning Us Into Zombies (And How To Fight Back)

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Why “Zoom Culture” Is Turning Us Into Zombies (And How To Fight Back)

Words by Mr Rob Kemp

16 March 2021

In December 2019, the video-conferencing platform Zoom served a worldwide total of 10 million daily meeting participants, mainly long-distance pow-wows between business people or academics. Four months later, that figure had rocketed to 300 million. Now, friends, neighbours, families, school and university students, co-workers, yoga practitioners, political leaders and even authoritarian parish councillors have all turned to Microsoft Teams, Webex, Zoom and others to keep in touch, to continue learning or to carry on grafting from home. But at what cost?

The average length of time an employee is logged on at their computer has increased by more than two hours a day since the start of the pandemic. “Zoom fatigue” has set in. A recent study of 3,200 virtual meeting attendees by the US National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review found that 46 per cent admitted to paying less attention during video meet-ups and 51 per cent said they felt their engagement was worse that when in face-to-face meetings. Below are five ways that Zoom fatigue is affecting us, and the ways in which we can fight back.

It makes every social interaction feel corporate

“Zoom has proved to be far more flexible and useful as a productivity tool than many would have imagined,” says Mr Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD business school at the University in Fontainebleau. “But it’s a fairly impersonal space where you would usually only get together in business mode.”

Using video conferencing for almost all our interactions outside our own four walls is scuttling our work-life balance. Our environmental settings – the bar, gym, sports stadium or theatre – do a lot of work in the background when we socially interact in them. They stimulate the mind, provoke conversational change and provide pauses. “When we don’t have that, but we still try to meet with friends or relatives, even go on a date via Zoom, we have to do more of that work,” says Mr Petriglieri. “It’s so much more exhausting.”

Tip: look away. You can listen without staring at the screen for an hour. If you are facilitating a long video call, make it OK for people to turn off their cameras for parts of it. Blank your screen to other viewers and look out the window or let your eyes rest for a moment.

It’s making our heads hurt

A NordVPN study found that UK workers have increased their working week by almost 25 per cent, while employees in the Netherlands are now logging off at 8.00pm, on average. All that screen time, coupled with the hidden complexities of meeting via video, is scrambling our brains.

“Video conferencing is the closest we now have to face-to-face conversation, but it can’t fully replicate the experience,” says Dr Linda Kaye, reader in psychology at Edge Hill University. “When we are co-present – occupying the same physical space as others – there is a wealth of shared social cues that occupy our joint attention. These usually mean we can easily interpret our situations and understand how and why others may be behaving in certain ways.”

Dr Kaye cites the example of a loud noise outside a meeting room, which can be heard by all parties. “Everyone understands the adaptions needed in that situation,” she says, “but when we are not physically co-present, we lose a lot of these shared social cues and so it takes a lot more effort to interpret a) other people and b) the situation at hand.”

We also lose the full range of physical cues, she says, “which can be very subtle in face-to-face communication, but more challenging to pick up in online formats”. Again, this calls for greater effort to interpret communications and interactions, and requires extra cognitive resources, which are physically and mentally tiring.

Factor in the well-established physical effects of days spent blinking in front of a screen – eye strain, headaches, posture issues – and it’s no surprise we’re experiencing physical and mental fatigue.

Tip: lose the view. Subconsciously focusing on five other people’s faces and background wallpaper, furnishings or bookshelves over-stimulates the brain as it tries to process a multitude of environment cues, which distracts you from the task in hand. Encourage the use of plain backgrounds and agree that those who are not talking turn off their camera.

Zoom fatigue is another form of stress

People are now scheduling video conference calls more often, which is only making matters worse. “People end up with significantly more meetings in a shorter amount of time based on not having to allow time to travel, etc,” says Dr Kaye. “They are also likely to start work earlier or finish later than normal due to travel being reduced. A long day with few breaks is obviously is not a healthy way to work.”

Zoom fatigue is not a unique side-effect of the pandemic. A 2014 study by German academics showed that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped people’s views of others negatively. Even delays of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused, making even the simplest of everyday interactions more stressful.

“Fatigue is a politically correct way of describing stress,” says Mr Petriglieri. “You know when you live under stress and your body feels fatigued. The extra work we have to do to compensate for some of the work that space and environment normally do is adding pressure to our working lives.”

Tip: clear the screen. Close the inbox and tabs or programs that might distract you during the call. Adopt usual meeting room etiquette, especially if that means putting your phone to one side. It will ease the drain on your brain. Plus, Stanford University researchers found that switching between tasks can cost you as much as 40 per cent of your productive time.

We need time to rest and recover between meetings

Mr Petriglieri agrees that the lack of micro-transitions – walking to the next meeting, leaving the building to head to the gym or commuting home from work – means the body and the brain don’t get to switch off. “Those transition times are when the brain would get out of one mode of being and into another,” he says. “It’s the same with athletes diagnosed with overtraining. It’s not because they work too hard, but because they don’t recover enough.”

Our cognition is similar. It thrives in moments of intense focus and activity, but needs moments of rest and recovery. Usually, that recovery time is built in to the architecture of our spaces and the natural breaks in our lives.

Tip: manage your time. On days when you can’t avoid back-to-back calls, make meetings 25 or 50 minutes in length. Tell others you can only stay in the meeting until, say, 10.50am. Give yourself time in between to get up and move around for a bit.

Reclaim the right to choose and start to feel better

Video conferencing is here to stay, but a change in mindset can help us manage it much better. “I don’t think people have suffered so much from the virtual meetings as the enforced captivity that comes with it,” says Mr Petriglieri. “When I’m forced to do a video conference meeting that I know would be better done face to face, I feel frustrated. When our body’s wishes are frustrated, we feel anxious and get tired.”

There is a flip side. “Once meeting virtually becomes a choice again, rather than the only option, it’s a different ball game,” says Mr Petriglieri. “One of the most solid findings in social psychology is that a perceived sense of choice is one of the greatest psychological protective factors. You feel a lot better. It reduces your stress.”

Tip: go old school. Check your diary and see if there are any scheduled conversations, especially one-to-ones, that could be handled over the phone or email instead. The chances are, that by asking to chat over the phone because you’re a bit Zoomed out, you’ll strike a chord with the other people, too.