Currently, we´re working through the second year of the coronavirus pandemic. While work from anywhere arrangements had been on the rise long before the onset of this global emergency, the drastic measures taken to slow down the spread of Covid-19 have led millions and millions of workers globally to switch from spending their workdays in an office building to working mostly remotely. They find it necessary to use video conferencing tools such as Zoom or MS Teams when trying to communicate with colleagues, customers, or just about anyone.
Only a few weeks into the pandemic, more and more news outlets began to report a phenomenon that came to be called Zoom Fatigue – in short: the (subjective) perception that working an hour or a full day frequently using video conferences is much more physically and mentally exhausting than having the same amount of face-to-face interaction. Experts have delivered a wide range of explanations for this observation. Some propose rather straight-forward reasons such as the increased mental load that comes with having to master the tech side of these interactions. Others observe that people are stressed out by the heightened difficulty of decoding their counterparts´ nonverbal cues while having a conversation.
Still others have put forward subtler explanations. Gianpiero Petriglieri, a management professor at INSEAD who has had extensive training in psychoanalysis, proposes that, underneath all of the aforementioned reasons, it really is a profound sense of loss that is causing us so much trouble. In an interview with BBC in April 2020, he said: “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together.”
From a perspective rooted in Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), I´d like to expand the explanation. Yes, participating in Zoom can drain our own personal energy. But what about the question below:
Are we receiving the same amount of energy via Zoom & Co. in the first place?
In recent years, scholars such as Wayne Baker, Jane Dutton, and Esa Saarinen have highlighted the idea that different kinds of interactions, no matter how short they might be, can generate (positive) energy while we´re engaging in them. An organization can be described as a never-ending stream of overlaying conversations, of micro-moments that are being shared between two or more actors inside and outside of the organizational boundaries. According Dutton´s framework of High-Quality Connections (HQC), some of these micro-moments have the power to supply us with relational energy, while others leave us more or less unchanged and still others are detrimental to our sense of vitality. Paraphrasing Kim Cameron, some interactions are just more life-giving than others.
Video killed the Interview Star
Think about interactions and energy in terms of a Gaussian distribution: Most interactions on a given day will be more or less neutral, while fewer will leave us noticeably either more vigorous or drained of our energy, and only very few will leave us either exhilarated or outright miserable. But what if Zoom & Co. shift the whole distribution somewhat to the left? What if we´re constantly receiving just a little less energy out of our interactions than we expect from face-to-face contacts?
Some evidence to corroborate this notion comes from the realm of job interviews. A meta-analysis by Blacksmith and colleagues found that, when comparing real-life job interviews with video interviews (and other means of technology-mediated interviews), both sides rate their experience as less successful. Applicants consistently receive lower ratings (and consequently, fewer job offers) and were themselves less satisfied with the process. It seems that neither side comes across the same way they do in person, which might lead to the perception of a less invigorating experience.
I’m pickin’ up good Vibrations
Assuming this is valid, what can we do about it? Over the last few months, I´ve held more than a dozen workshops for a wide range of organizations, focusing on the issue on virtual leadership and collaboration. These are the most widely-used recommendations I´ve encountered:
- If it can be done in a way that is safe, plan for some face-to-face interaction, even if it´s only once per month or once per quarter. The more we learn about video conferencing, the more we also find that meeting people in 3-D seems to be irreplaceable.
- If you can afford it, invest in an excellent external camera, a microphone, and additional gear such as a ring light; don´t just stick to the equipment that comes with your laptop. You want to make sure that others can see and hear you in the best possible way.
- Make sure that your camera is located on eye-level, e.g., by placing your laptop on a pile of books. Otherwise, the person(s) at the other end might feel you´re looking down on them. Additionally, don´t position your head too close to the camera. Ideally, your counterpart will be able to see your hand gestures which will help them to understand what you are trying to convey.
- If you are leading a team or a department, do not limit yourself to formal interactions, such as official one-on-ones or team meetings, when using video tools. Try to emulate the informal side of the systems that you´re serving. This might entail virtual lunches or coffee chats. By now, there´s also a gamut of virtual team-building activities, such as online escape rooms, treasure hunts, or murder mystery dinners. Don´t skip the small talk just because most interactions take place within the boundaries of official appointments in your calendar.
- Regularly ask yourself if what you’re trying to achieve really needs to be attained via a video call. By now, we´re so accustomed to using these tools that we forget about the good old telephone. A former colleague of mine told me that he is regularly engaging in what he has labeled ninja calls: He rings up his associates without appointment or agenda, just to have chat. What a crazy idea that is … 😉
Baker, W. (2019). Emotional Energy, Relational Energy, and Organizational Energy: Toward a Multilevel Model. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6, 373-395.
Blacksmith, N., Williford, J. C., & Behrend, T. S. (2016). Technology in the Employment Interview: A Meta-Analysis and Future Research Agenda. Personnel Assessment and Decisions, 2(1), 12-20.
Bright, D. S., Cameron, K., & Caza, A. (2006). The Amplifying and Buffering Effects of Virtuousness in Downsized Organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 64, pages 249–269
Fosslien, L. & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review.
Ha, A. (2020, July 20). Working from home: How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.
Hämäläinen, R. P. & Saarinen, E. (2008). Systems intelligence—the way forward? A note on Ackoff’s ‘why few organizations adopt systems thinking.’ Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25, 821-825.
Jiang, M. (2020, April 22). The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC interview with Gianpiero Petriglieri.
Sklar, J. (2020, April 24). ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens. National Geographic.
Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J. E. (2012). High-quality connections. In K. S. Cameron & G. M. Spreitzer (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship (p. 385–399). Oxford University Press.Image Credits
Energy flowing picture by vadim kaipov on Unsplash
Class on Zoom Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash
High energy photo by visuals on Unsplash