COVID-19 showed the flaws of video calls, and now we must save the world from Zoom fatigue

Video calls are basically the Noah's Ark of 2020 and this time we need to save the unicorns (our mental health). Or something like that. I'm not great at metaphors.

We’ve been in varied forms of lockdown for close to a year now. So I guess you’ve already heard… a lot… about Zoom fatigue. I have. But outside of the constant “oh, I have Zoom fatigue!” talk, I strongly believe that we could do more to both explain and fight this situation instead of just adding the problem to our everyday language.

Zoom fatigue is not like meeting overload. It’s not just burnout. In a time when we suddenly dropped two thirds of our interactions with no valid alternative, many of us switched to video calls. And there is so much wrong with that.

In this post, I’ll start with an overview of why video calls are not a good option to replace real-life interactions, and why they are so exhausting even when they are informal. Then, I’ll round up some useful tips to avoid VC fatigue. You will find the sources I used (most of them in English, one in French) at the end of the post.

Video calls hurt our brains and our hearts

The frustration of technical issues

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Technical issues and varied errors are frustrating; they add a layer of anxiety to what could have been a normal discussion, especially when you’re having professional video calls which are already stressful. “Can everyone see my screen?” “Do you all hear me?” “I think you’re on mute!” keep distracting us from our actual conversation. When talking, we must check indicators and make sure that people hear us, and sometimes, we have to repeat the same thing three times because the mic just keeps cutting off.

Outside of that, technical issues reshape the way we view some core elements of a healthy conversation. For instance, silence is really important in a real-life conversation: a few seconds of silence helps set the rhythm and show that you’re reflecting on what the other person said. But in video calls, we attribute silence to either technical problems or to lack of attention—a 2014 study showed that a delay of 1.2 seconds before answering was enough for people to think the other person was “less friendly or focused.”

Not only must we fight with computers, and not all of us are equals for that, but we must reconfigure our ways of interacting.

Sheer exhaustion

In a video chat, you’re watching yourself speak while you’re speaking. So while you’re making a good point on camera, you’re also checking your hair, that one pimple you thought wouldn’t be noticed, how tired you look—will people notice the bags under your eyes? (Yes, they will, because the video call forces them to look at you. It’s bad for everyone.)

Outside of that, you lose a lot of non-verbal cues compared to an in-person meeting. Facial expressions are pixelated and small; tone and pitch are affected by audio quality; body language disappears altogether. We are talking, but reactions are delayed, incomplete, or completely absent. The energy spent trying to figure out how others feel about what we said means that we can never relax and have a natural conversation.

You must be much more attentive than on phone calls: people are going to check that you’re making eye contact at all times and you won’t be able to do anything else at the same time. In a conference room, you can easily ask a quick question sotto voce; during a video call, either you’ll mute yourself and type a message and get completely sidetracked, or you’ll ask the colleague to repeat and subject everyone to your ignorance. (I am *barely* exaggerating.)

Even doodling was normal for in-person meetings; now, it’s taking your eyes off the screen, which means people will believe that you’re less focused. But in a real meeting, to quote Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in the Harvard Business Review: “how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never.” There is no peripheral vision in video calls, only a face talking to you.

Speaking of peripheral vision, here’s a last point on that: when in a call with the default layout, you see one room per attendee. Even if you don’t really care, you’ll find yourself looking at every single miniature face and taking in all the details of all the rooms everyone is in. That’s something you wouldn’t have with a phone call (no rooms at all) or an in-person meeting (just one room), and it overloads your brain with completely unnecessary information.

A need to perform

Outside of the heightened stimulation for your brain on useless or peripheral details, you’re also going to have to perform at any time. I talked about it earlier—you need to look at the screen or camera, you need to make artificial eye contact, you need to wait in turn and answer at the exact right moment. While you’re talking, you’re seeing a small image of yourself, so you’re constantly assessing whether you look the way you’d like to look, whether your non-verbal cues are clear enough that other participants will pick them up.

Even when you are not the subject of focus and you’re just one silent attendee, there’s a camera following you and you never know when someone will stare at your face. So you’re always performing for an audience that may or may not exist at any time.

Video calls do not make you less lonely

The more different channels of connection we use with someone, the stronger the relationship will be. If you see someone offline, and talk to them on social media, and by email, and make a phone or video call once in a while, your bond will be really strong. The problem is that we lost our offline communication channels with COVID-19. Because of this, our relationships become more artificial by default, and video calls can only save so much of it. So that specific problem isn’t just due to video calling; it’s just that no alternative can fully replace real-life interactions.

However, there are some issues caused entirely by video calling. After a call, it has been proven that people usually feel lonelier and more disconnected from others; those studies were made long before COVID-19 hit, in the context of long-distance relationships. Basically, when you’re in a video call with someone you love, it’s mostly a painful reminder that you won’t see them any time soon.

In group meetings, you can’t have quick comments with your neighbour, nor can you nudge them. This is what relaxes most people and allows them to engage with the meeting in a positive way—as we’ve seen above, you can’t really do it without breaking eye contact or looking like an idiot in video calls.

Worst of all is a large group call, where you’re just a face somewhere in a mosaic of faces, you’re not talking, you’re barely a person anymore. As an individual, you can’t express yourself or be part of the conversation; you’re just there, listening (vaguely?) and performing in case someone looks at you and judges you. And that’s it.

And a final note on video calls and on everything else: some people just don’t do well in meetings due to psychological differences. And some more people have enough to deal with because of COVID-19 that their focus has been severely affected; people with children at home, people who have to protect their fragile health, people who live alone and haven’t had a real social interaction in months, many of us are exhausted and the smallest meeting effort feels like climbing a mountain. It’s not just that video calls suck; it’s that video calls suck, and COVID-19 makes everything worse.

And now, some solutions

Video chat should not be the default solution

First of all, always consider your options. Is a video call really the best way to convey information?

Some other formats can be much more useful:

  • Instead of presenting a deck, share the deck with clear speaker notes and let people read it at their own pace. You’ll get much higher-quality feedback and questions too if people don’t have to unmute themselves and ask a smart question on the spot in front of everyone. (Being a hugely meeting-averse person, I’d love it if more people did that for in-person meetings too.)

  • If you’re making an announcement, write it down somewhere. The information will be shared more efficiently and seen by everyone, without the pressure of being part of every call and listening at every moment.

  • Consider a phone call if you really need to talk out loud: this way, you can walk around and make your hands busy while listening and participating, and there will be none of the camera-caused issues (pressure to perform, analyzing your room at the same time as the other person’s room, etc.).

For basic information, the channel you use is not very important. Just go through something written that people can also check later on, and try to avoid video/audio format for this, as it just adds unnecessary pressure on everyone, including you.

For more important conversations, a phone call may be more appropriate to convey more nuance and feeling. Video calls can be really invasive: until COVID-19 hit, many of us didn’t invite our colleagues into our home, and this has suddenly changed. Let’s go back to a safe option where home is home, and we only video call with people whom we would have invited into our homes in normal times.

In short: video should not be the first option, especially for work. Many other channels exist and are more appropriate.

Advice for video chat

Now, if you’re going to make a video call anyway, here is some advice to make it less painful.

First of all, feel free to mute the video; try to share this article (or any of the ones I’ve quoted as sources) to show your team that removing your video is a self-preservation measure and is not meant to hide that you’re slacking off. It removes a lot of pressure to perform, meaning that your brain will be able to process much more of the actual valuable takeaways of the meeting. Last week, I’ve cut my camera twice in meetings; nobody seems to have noticed (good for me!) and I felt much more comfortable, and definitely saw improvement in the way I reacted to the meetings, when I wasn’t busy making very interested faces to show that I was listening!

I’ve also seen a few more recommendations:

  • Encourage people to use simple backgrounds—doesn’t have to be just white, but a nice landscape with few details will remove the pressure of what the room looks like and the exhaustion of analyzing everyone’s setting.

  • Encourage people to turn their video off when they’re not talking: even more efficient than the previous one, but also probably requires you to be a bit more powerful inside your organization!

  • For larger team meetings, definitely turn your video and audio off. Nobody needs to see you, and if you need to talk just turn things back on—the rest of the time, you can focus on the meeting.

  • Try to keep calls with video and audio at a minimum, especially at work, and keep them for positive occasions—a happy hour with people you like, and your friends and family. This way, your brain might stop considering video calls as a chore and you will start enjoying “fun” video calls once again, which will really help fight the loneliness and the overwhelm!

  • You should start every call by asking people how they are and making a bit of small talk. However, ask the others if they are fine with that—the disappearance of small talk is detrimental to many of us, because it hurts connection, but some of us are actually having a much better time without it (especially neuroatypical and introverted people), so ask and adapt! But with small talk, in general, you’ll be able to foster relationships that have been affected by COVID-19, and everyone involved will feel a bit better.

General advice for these uNpReCeDeNtEd TiMeS

Let’s finish with a bit of general advice. As I said at the beginning of this post, we’ve lost our offline communication channels, and relationships are stronger when they have varied ways of exchanging information.

This means that naturally, your social circle will be negatively affected. If you want your relationships to stay strong, you’ll need to limit their number. Communicate regularly with fewer people and focus on them instead of trying to call everyone and feeling estranged from your entire social circle. For these people, go all in: put communications in your weekly schedule so that they are part of your routine, reach out regularly, and be thoughtful of topics, including small talk, because every interaction is important right now.

Sources

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