February 9, 2023
By now, working remotely has become commonplace. Even as the pandemic subsides, working from home or other impromptu locations instead of a standard office has become an increasingly sought-after perk. While there are many clear advantages, the problem is, as with information overload, our minds are endlessly overstimulated. After a while, people feel exhausted, frustrated, and unfocused. This phenomena, known as Zoom Fatigue, covers everything from long brainstorming sessions to in-depth online training, not only simple meetings on Zoom or Teams.
As the widespread adoption of online events has become commonplace, one would hope this well-known issue would have been addressed. Likewise, zoom executives would undoubtedly love it if their product were not associated with excessive exhaustion from endless virtual meetings. But the problem is, these challenges are alive and well.
Some have argued over whether this phenomenon is real or not. A Pew Research Center report on a recent survey concluded that there is no real sign of widespread Zoom fatigue, with only 26 percent of respondents claiming they felt worn out by the amount of time spent on video calls. However, reports from Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere indicate that the problem is very real, due in part to design flaws that exhaust the human mind and body.
The data show that, however widespread the phenomenon is, post-COVID, there are good reasons to take it seriously. Zoom fatigue is a very real problem that will not simply go away by ignoring it.
There are some simple, practical ways to minimize the effects of Zoom Fatigue. One is to turn off your self-view during a session. There is something about looking at yourself and critiquing yourself in real time that is distracting and mentally exhausting if done over a long period of time. As much as you may want to see what others are seeing, it drains you more than you think. Most virtual meeting platforms offer ways to set this and other distractions aside.
This strategy to simplify your virtual meeting area can extend further. Encouraging the use of simple, solid backgrounds for everyone in the meeting eliminates distractions and reduces any distracting clutter around each room for each participant. Also, setting participants’ view to “Speaker View”—or on prepared visuals—is preferable to the thumbnail view of everyone in the meeting. This reduces on-screen busyness and distractions.
One of the biggest problems is the urge to multitask during virtual meetings. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Oh, this has nothing to do with me. I could get other tasks done in the meantime.” But this causes you to completely lose track of what is being discussed and be caught flat-footed when your attention is needed. Not only does this slow down the entire meeting so you can catch up, but it also strains your mental ability in a way that slowly wears you down. As annoying and seemingly time-wasting as the endless meetings are, meeting time should be seen as something that requires your full attention. As much as you want to delude yourself into thinking you can do a few mindless tasks while still engaging in the meeting, that is impossible. In the long run, you will be able to get more done by not overextending yourself in such a way and fully committing to the single task in front of you.
In the end, the sheer volume of virtual meetings and events may be causing fatigue. The constant demand for focus and endless eye contact for something that could have been just as easily passed on via email puts an unnecessary drain on people’s energy. Spacing out or limiting the number of zoom meetings you have while encouraging simple phone calls, text messages, or emails for things that do not demand the attention of an entire team or group would go a long way toward improving the situation. Some companies have wisely instituted “Zoom-free days” to give their people space to be creative. Not everything needs to be a face-to-face virtual event—as leaders would do well to remember.
For large-scale hybrid or virtual events, the perils of Zoom Fatigue can be avoided by careful planning and high production values. Presenters and panelists should be coached on how to engage their virtual audience members. (They should also be relieved of the responsibility of managing the technology itself, so they can focus on people, not problems.) As with in-person events, virtual event presentation materials should be concise and well-designed—and vetted by producers to avoid surprises during the event itself.
There are inevitable demands to keep team members in the loop, no matter where they work. There are also training and informational needs that can only be met cost-effectively with the use of virtual event platforms. So, the more we plan and produce these events with the needs of remote participants in mind, focusing on engagement as well as convenience, the less we will have to deal with the stress and lost productivity caused by Zoom Fatigue.
Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions (www.letstrainonline.com), a leading producer of virtual and hybrid events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and from Amplify Publishing.