Meetings - they have always been part of our jobs, but never have they felt like such hard work. Since virtual meetings have become the norm, the effects we feel IRL are even more depleting, deflating and demotivating than before. Meeting fatigue is real, and researchers and scientists are delving into its causes and effects, and how it can be managed.
What is meeting fatigue?
Meeting fatigue, or Zoom fatigue as it is often commonly referred to, is a feeling of both mental and physical exhaustion following one or several video conferencing calls. In 2020, Zoom reported that it had over 300 million meeting participants logging onto the platform daily. That unprecedented spike in the use of videoconferencing software prompted Stanford University to create a Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) scale.
The scale was formulated based on research that revealed five dimensions of fatigue: general, social, emotional, visual, and motivational. The researchers’ studies also revealed something interesting about meeting-related fatigue. Firstly, the frequency, duration, and burstiness of Zoom meetings were associated with a higher level of fatigue. Secondly, this fatigue was associated with negative attitudes towards Zoom meetings.
What causes it?
Meetings have been a thorn in the side of workers since time immemorial. Whether there are just too many meetings, or the meetings themselves are long and ineffective, meeting fatigue was around in some form long before the advent of the pandemic. However, the ante has been upped, and modern meeting fatigue is a new beast that we are having difficulty taming. The common causes of meeting fatigue are numerous, and relate to social, behavioural and cognitive activities.
Audio quality has been found to be one of the most persistent causes of meeting fatigue. The quality of a call, background noise, external sounds, delays and technical glitches are all stressors when it comes to conference calls. The most taxing interruption of all, however, is silence. Millisecond delays in responses on virtual calls interrupts the flow of dialogue and negatively affects interpersonal perceptions. These slight delays create an atmosphere of discomfort and awkwardness, which, over time, build up to a feeling of dread around the mere prospect of another call. Add into this the plethora of “new distractions” generated by the WFH experiment (children, pets, deliveries etc.) and interruptions to meetings take on a whole new life of disruption and anxiety.
Fluid and direct communication has always been central to successful meetings, but virtual meetings upend the natural flow that occurs in person. Stanford scholar Pamela Hinds was conducting research into video conferencing way back in the 1990’s, and found that nonverbal behaviour is simultaneously effortless and incredibly complex. In the context of Zoom fatigue, the complexity of nonverbal communication remains the same, but users need to work harder to send and receive these nonverbal signals.
In virtual meetings, we overcompensate for the physical distance by sending more signals than would be usually necessary - speaking more loudly, maintaining eye contact for longer etc. Those we are communicating with are also decontextualised - we get no real sense of a person’s height or stature, seeing as we are only looking at their head and shoulders.
Also, we have a tendency to zero in on our own little square, focusing on our own image more than usual. Professor Jeremy Bailenson, author of the Stanford research paper on Zoom fatigue, speaks on this aspect of virtual meetings, saying, “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
Juggling the new aspects of video conferencing mentioned above requires more mental acrobatics than traditional meetings. This increased cognitive load puts our brains under strain, making us more exhausted at the end of a call.
Our concentration is being pulled in different directions, and this is exacerbated by the heavier workloads that also weigh on us in this new working landscape. Many of us will have a tendency to try and multitask during a Zoom call, creating a scenario where the meeting is happening in the background, and we are working on a different and often unrelated project while we sit at our desks, dipping in and out of the meeting as necessary. This lack of focused attention can make us feel like we spend all day working, but get little done, leaving us feeling drained and frustrated.
And of course, this feeling can be compounded by a tendency to daydream during a meeting, the likelihood of which is increased if the meeting is being held online. Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor at Norfolk State University, says, “We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular.”
Scientific research has shown that there is greater activity in the reward regions of the brain during in-person communications compared to virtual interactions. In practice, this means that in-person interactions increase happiness, spelling bad news for us from continuous interactions over Zoom.
The interface used on video calls can also have negative connotations. For example, prolonged eye-contact can be perceived as threatening behaviour, and scepticism can arise when we can’t see a participant's face if they have their camera turned off. The result of this can be a lack of trust, particularly within the manager-employee dynamic. This can negatively impact collaboration, if some team members feel more comfortable contributing or having their cameras on than others. The domino effect of this could be that these regular contributors may be favoured simply by virtue of their own level of confidence when it comes to interacting on a screen.
What can be done about it?
Probably the best way to tackle meeting fatigue is to have better meetings. Meetings that:
A). Have to happen
B). Have a defined purpose and desired outcome
C). Start and end on time
D). Are well prepared
E). Are properly recorded
F). Are accessible and properly circulated.
Clearword is the home for your meetings, and as such, we have spent a lot of time thinking about and figuring out the best way to run meetings more effectively and efficiently to combat the modern meeting fatigue. Check out our previous blog posts to dive deeper into the world of meeting management.
Digital meeting lifecycle - https://clearword.com/blog/digital-meeting-experience-lifecycle
How often should we have meetings - https://clearword.com/blog/how-often-should-we-have-meetings
Manage distractions - https://clearword.com/blog/distractions-when-working-from-home
Five tips for running more effective remote meetings - https://clearword.com/blog/5-tips-for-running-more-effective-remote-meetings
How to fix the problem of too many meetings - https://clearword.com/blog/too-many-meetings-here-is-how-you-can-fix-it
5 things to cover in weekly team meetings - https://clearword.com/blog/5-things-to-cover-in-weekly-team-meetings
How to have better meetings - https://clearword.com/blog/how-to-have-better-meetings
How to take meeting minutes - https://clearword.com/blog/how-to-take-meeting-minutes