On a zoom call, you start telling jokes. Everyone laughs. So, you keep going. The laughter continues. Then, at the end of the call, you notice your microphone has been on mute the entire time. ‘Hmmm’

M J Martin

Over the past two months, I have spent between 5-8 hours per day on web conferences. Are you doing the same? It has come to my attention that there are a few serious implications and negative effects to these hours of weekly communications over the computer screen.

I have tried to mix it up a wee bit and change devices and locations. Sometimes I use my iPhone, or my tablet, but mostly I use my laptop or desktop computers. With the iPhone and the iPad, I can move about the house and chat from the family room, kitchen, or even the backyard while caring for the dogs.

My levels of exhaustion from these 25 to 40 hours of weekly webcam chats and meetings has increased. I find them to be draining and I wondered why?

It seems that there is something called. ‘Zoom Fatigue’. With so many people reporting similar reactions to excessive web calls, it has recently earned its own name or jargon. It does not matter if you actually use the web conferencing tools called, Zoom, it is the same if you use Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, Skype, Google Hangouts, GotoMeeting, or FaceTime. There are so many of these web meeting tools today, the affects from them are manifesting as the same thing – physical and mental exhaustion.

In the past, we attended face-to-face meetings, we met for coffees, chatting as we walked together, or touched on a key topic when we met in the hallway or in the cafeteria. In these live, in-person encounters, we had no problem detecting emotions and assessing reactions to topics. We easily read the body language of others or judged their facial expressions to get hints of how they felt.

Beyond work video conference calls, we use these same web meeting tools to chat to friends and family too. Now with the holiday season upon us, we will undoubtedly have more weekend and evening calls too. As Toronto is in lock-down and the COVID situation is amplifying skywards in daily tolls, the return to normal still seems to be far off, even with the release of the vaccines. So, these web calls will continue into 2021 and likely far beyond as they are now seamlessly tightly woven into our social media fabric.

People are experiencing challenges detecting emotional and visual clues in their daily communications over the internet. As a result, some are overly overt and pumping up their emotions to communicate more effectively. Many others are hiding their emotions, with their cameras turned off, so there are zero visual clues from them. And, others, even if they are on camera, seem as if their streaming face is frozen by a cyber glitch, even when the stream is still flowing correctly. Then, there is the media itself that compounds the problem when the audio distorts, is lost all together, and / or the video locks up too. Working from home means that I am my own IT technician – sadly I am ill-equipped for this new role and responsibility – so this is frustrating too.

All of this adds up to Zoom Gloom. Humans communicate even when they are quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they are fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.

These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what is expected in response from the listener. Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.

However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.

For somebody who is really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them. Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long.

With a matrix of way too many faces on a typical call, and with many faces obstructed or with their cameras off, it is incredibly hard to know exactly who is talking and where I need to look. These larger computer screens create a Hollywood Squares approach, but without the TV shows isolation camera shot to focus on the character talking. I spend a lot of time hunting the screen to see who is speaking.

Too often, extraneous acoustic echos, heavy sighs, sneezing, or coughing instantly triggers the speaker highlighting feature away from whoever is presenting, so this aggravates my screen scans for the face of the talker.

People step on each other in their rush to answer, even before the question being asked is fully spoken.

You are on mute! Said 10,000 times in 2020.

M J Martin

Or, the number one phrase of 2020, “You are on mute!”. How often have I said that, which again, pulls us out of the conversation and into differing mindset.

For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can never find.

That is why a traditional phone call may be less taxing on the brain. It easily delivers on a small promise: to convey only a voice.

It is typical that two or more call participants utilize the chat features while on the call. They dialogue in this back channel to make jokes, criticize, or go off-topic. These background chats distract and effectively remove the participants from the main foreground channel conversation. They are akin to students passing notes in class behind the teacher’s back. While they may be daring or fun, then detract from effective communications of the main thread conversations.

In contrast, there is something called the ‘Zoom Boon” which is manifested from the sudden shift to video calls. It has been a boon for people who have neurological difficulty with in-person exchanges, such as those with autism who can become overwhelmed by multiple people talking.

This outcome is supported by research, says the University of Québec Outaouais’ Claude Normand, who studies how people with developmental and intellectual disabilities socialize online. People with autism tend to have difficulty understanding when it’s their turn to speak in live conversations, she notes. That’s why the frequent lag between speakers on video calls may actually help some autistic people. “When you’re Zooming online, it’s clear whose turn it is to talk,” Normand says.

On the whole, video chatting has allowed human connections to flourish in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. These tools enable us to maintain long-distance relationships, connect workrooms remotely, and even now, in spite of the mental exhaustion they can generate, foster some sense of togetherness during a pandemic.

It’s even possible Zoom Fatigue will abate once people learn to navigate the mental tangle video chatting can cause. If you’re feeling self-conscious or overstimulated, Normand recommends you turn off your camera. Save your energy for when you absolutely want to perceive the few non-verbal cues that do come through, such as during the taxing chats with people you don’t know very well, or for when you want the warm fuzzies you get from seeing someone you love. Or if it’s a work meeting that can be done by phone, try walking at the same time.

“Walking meetings are known to improve creativity, and probably reduce stress as well,” Normand says.

————————–MJM ————————–

References:

Sklar, J. (2020). ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens. National Geographic Partners, LLC. Retrieved on December 19, 2020 from, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/

————————–MJM ————————–

About the Author:

Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).  He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.