How to combat Zoom fatigue on your team

Here are the symptoms, science, and solutions to combating Zoom fatigue and virtual meeting fatigue at work

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

Zoom fatigue — it’s the exhaustion you feel after a video call, video chat, or Zoom meeting.

You’re drained, cranky, and feel unproductive. The thought of having to interact with your team, other humans — heck, even your cat — feels completely unfathomable. Yet your calendar pings you with an alert: you’ve got another call in five minutes.

Zoom fatigue is real. An unofficial diagnosis born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom fatigue can happen, not only to users of the video conferencing platform, but to anyone who spends lots of time on video meetings of any kind.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, that “at risk” group includes many of us.

Here, we’ll cover Zoom fatigue symptoms, the science behind why it happens in the first place, and what you can do to combat Zoom fatigue on your team.

Symptoms of Zoom fatigue

Zoom fatigue can feel similar to burnout, fatigue, or exhaustion. Here are some telltale signs to look out for:

  • Avoiding, canceling, or rescheduling video meetings
  • Turning off video view on a regular basis or clearly multitasking during the call
  • Feeling the need to spend time alone after meetings
  • Feeling tense, drained, or extremely low energy after a meeting is over
  • Feeling that your ability to handle typical work responsibilities is impaired; always feeling a little behind
  • Feeling sore eyes from looking at your screen for too long

Left untreated, Zoom fatigue can take a major toll on your team’s wellbeing. It often snowballs to larger problems too, like decreased engagement, negative attitudes, poor team dynamics, and burnout.

The science behind Zoom fatigue

Back-to-back meetings have always been exhausting, so what makes Zoom meetings any different? It has a lot to do with the way our brains process interactions over video versus an in-person meeting.

First off, video meetings take increased cognitive load and emotional effort. During in-person conversations, we rely on nonverbal communication, body language, and cues to read each other. Small things, like whether a person is facing towards you, what a teammate is doing with their arms, or the way someone takes a quick breath and leans forward when they want to cut in, all have meaning to our brain in processing the interaction. They signal to us how the rest of the room feels at any given moment, and how we should be acting in response.

Over Zoom, we have to work a lot harder to send and receive these same signals.

To act interested or engaged, we might purposely stare more diligently at the speaker’s face on the screen. (This can actually make you more tired.) To show agreement, there’s the exaggerated nod or thumbs up — both take more effort for our bodies and brains to do. During in-person meetings, we’re naturally able to scan the physical space to gauge how the rest of the participants are acting. On Zoom, trying to read the room requires a lot more energy as our eyes dart around from speaker to participants. It’s a lot to take in.

“When our brains are forced to decode so much different information all at once, no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.” – Julia Sklar, National Geographic

There’s also that feeling that you have to constantly keep yourself in check: Am I still in the center of the screen? Am I doing something weird with my face? What’s that new wrinkle on my forehead?! Research on Zoom fatigue from Stanford University explains that seeing your own face reflected back in self-view tends to make you feel more critical of yourself, and can be extremely mentally taxing.

The same Stanford University study found that part of what causes Zoom fatigue is the amount of intense, sustained eye contact.

“In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time.” – Vignesh Ramachandran, Stanford News

It’s stressful, even if you’re not the speaker, since you’re constantly looking at giant, close-up faces staring back at you. Prolonged eye contact can actually trigger the brain to feel threatened or intimate — neither of which you want to feel on a call for work.

Video calls also take a greater toll than in-person meetings because they force us to sit still. Even during back-to-back meetings in an office, you spend the time between walking, moving, to your next meeting. At home, back-to-back virtual meetings force us to sit in the same chair for hours on end. It’s limiting in a way that’s not natural and, for many, the ability to move around while talking and listening actually helps us think.

At home, giving your undivided attention to anything takes more work too. There are likely added distractions — like roommates, pets, or kids — and the desire to multitask when no one else is physically around can be much stronger.

How to combat Zoom fatigue on your team

The easiest way to fight Zoom fatigue is to cut down on time spent in video meetings.

Take a moment each quarter to evaluate the standing meetings on your team’s calendar and see if there’s an opportunity to do things differently.

Evaluate your meetings by asking yourself the following.

  • What’s its intended purpose? (Ex: create stronger team bonds, social connection, communicate status updates, set a plan for the week)
  • Are there other meetings with the same purpose? Are there ways to achieve this purpose that don’t require a meeting at all?
  • Are people attending it?
  • Is it providing value to everyone in the room or just a few individuals?

This should help you identify meetings you no longer need or meetings that can be moved to an async format.

Use async communication to cut down on meetings

Async communication happens in writing, instead of in-person. It’s a great way to keep remote and hybrid teams in sync without having to meet for a video chat. It also has the added benefit of improving access to information and creating a written record of all your team’s progress and accomplishments.

Async communication works really well for meetings like standups and status updates. But it can also be used to replace or shorten many other meetings on your team’s calendars too.

  • Status updates: Rather than holding a Zoom round-robin, teams use async written updates (like Check-ins) to share progress on in-flight work and flag blockers. This eliminates a meeting that can sometimes feel repetitive and helps folks more easily surface context about the work that they wouldn’t have had time for in a 30-second update.
  • Standups: For async standups, teams use daily written updates to share what they’re working on, what they’ve accomplished, and how they’re doing. Not only does this cut down on the number of hours spent in meetings each week, but it also gives folks a line of sight into how everyone’s doing so they can collaborate and support each other.
  • Team meeting: Adding an async pre-read component can help folks align before the team meeting and come prepared. This ensures a more productive discussion and can often help cut down the meeting’s length.
  • Brainstorms and retros: Try having folks do an async pre-read beforehand and prepare a few ideas too. When people come prepared with context and ideas, it’s easier to get creative more quickly and means the session can be shorter. (Bonus: This approach is more inclusive of different personalities and work styles too.)
  • Work 1:1s: Instead of meeting for a status update, consider using async check-ins or even email to share updates. Then you can use your meeting time to chat about personal development or how you’re feeling.

Get up and stretch your legs

Back-to-back Zooms are exhausting, in part, because we don’t get a chance to move around and stretch our legs.

If video or presenting isn’t absolutely crucial to the discussion, consider moving to a different format, like a simple phone call or a walking meeting. At Range, we like to do our 1:1s as walking meetings. Even if we’re not physically together, it’s nice to get outside, stretch our legs, and get a break from the mental fatigue that comes with being in front of a video screen.

Effective meetings equal shorter meetings

For meetings you do decide to keep around, ensuring there’s an agenda, facilitator, and solid notes can help keep things short and sweet.

When someone’s in charge of managing time, it’s easier to stay on track without getting derailed by side conversations. Agendas keep things moving too and help each meeting participant to come prepared for a productive discussion.

Note-taking is key too. When the facilitator (or another assigned teammate) takes good notes, it means that the whole team has visibility into decisions made in that meeting, without having to actually attend it.

6 tips for running more effective remote meetings

Pick a meeting and try out these tips

You don’t need to migrate every single meeting on your team’s calendar to an async format right away. Start by testing it out on a smaller scale. Take a look at your existing meetings and choose one where the team is tuning out, attendance is low, or status updates feel repetitive or low value.

Commit to experimenting with an async format for a month — it can take some trial and error, so give the team time to adjust. During that time, here are a few tips to help your team get used to async and get more immediate value out of it.

  • Give folks structure: Rather than a free for all, give structure or provide a template so folks feel confident they’re sharing the right information. For example, for an async standup, you might agree to share: What you’re focused on today, what you accomplished yesterday, and how you’re feeling — with a maximum of three bullet points for each. You can even share a template or example with the team to get them started.
  • Set a calendar reminder: To help build the habit, it can be helpful to set a calendar reminder to nudge folks as they’re getting used to the new format. As a leader, lead by example and make sure you’re sharing in a timely manner.
  • Have an open conversation: As you experiment with async communication, make it a priority to check in regularly with your team to understand what is and isn’t working. This will help folks feel included in developing these new practices and ensure everyone is bought in.

Say goodbye to Zoom fatigue.

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The struggle is real: How to combat Zoom fatigue on your team
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