remote work

Zoom Out!

Zoom fatigue is real: research shows employees (particularly women) find the brain drain of video calls to be exhausting and long to turn the camera off.
article cover

Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

According to a recent Harris Poll/HR Brew survey, 75% of employed Americans are back in the workplace at least on a somewhat regular basis, muttering side comments down the conference table, passing notes during meetings, and kicking their work wife’s shins under the table when the boss makes a particularly cringey joke at the All Hands meeting.

We jest: Employees might be back in the office, but meetings are still on Zoom—and the fatigue is real. Research shows employees (particularly women) find the brain drain of video calls to be exhausting and long to turn the camera off. At the same time, some meetings actually are necessary—the challenge is to make the ones we do need better for all involved. HR has scheduled a series of meetings to discuss how, follow-up meetings with senior leadership, and an All Hands meeting to roll-out the limited-meeting-policy will email everyone the action plan.

Dr. Géraldine Fauville, the primary author of Stanford University’s Zoom-fatigue study, told HR Brew that video calls are draining in part because they impede nonverbal communication.

“When we are interacting in person, most people have an instinctive understanding of nonverbal behavior. It gives us important information, like when we can interrupt someone who is speaking without being rude. A lot of the nonverbal communication is lost on video calls,” she explained.

On Zoom, everyone is working harder to understand body language and perform understandable body language. The extra behavioural effort demanded by endless virtual meetings is, over time, tiring. Not fighting-historic-wildfires tiring, but still.

Zoom and Gloom

All of the problems with Zoom are magnified for women, who are more likely to be burned out by seeing their burned out faces on camera.

“Can you imagine spending a day of your life with your assistant following you around and holding a mirror in front of your face every time you interact with someone else?” Dr. Fauville asked. “Seeing your own image leads to self-evaluation, which can lead to negative affect, such as bad mood or anxiety, especially among women.”

Despite these concerns, some employees see video calls as a job requirement and want full participation—cameras included.

In a recent study of attitudes toward remote meetings, one participant griped that attending a meeting with your camera off was akin to “going to a meeting and sitting there with a bag over your head.” Other employees indicate that quitting a job is easier when they don’t see their colleagues in person or even on video call, which means Zoom fatigue is also a retention problem.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.

The Ideal Calendar: A Lean, Mean, Burnout-Fighting Machine

Given the conflicting messages from employees about virtual meetings, how can HR leaders  develop consistent best practices?

For starters, they can educate employees on individual settings to improve their experience. Dr. Fauville recommends disabling “self-view” on Zoom. (Here’s how.)

On a systemic level, Nancy Halpern, an organizational consultant and CEO of Political IQ, advises organizations to perform a ground-up audit of their meetings calendar, considering frequency, duration, and attendees.

Recent studies by Microsoft point to the necessity of ten-minute breaks between Zoom meetings to let the brain resettle,” Halpern told HR Brew. “So schedule all meetings for only 45 to 50 minutes to be sure everyone has time to breathe.”

As for the invite list? Halpern says wrap a velvet rope around it.

“Figure out if that meeting is really essential and have only those most necessary attend,” she recommended.

One company doing all of this and more is Electric AI, an IT solutions company based in New York. HR Brew spoke to SVP of People Jamie Coakley about their approach to meetings.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we kept hearing people didn’t have time to work because they were constantly in meetings,” Coakley explained. “So we implemented a policy of no meetings on Thursday mornings. We also do regular audits of team calendars to ask, ‘Are these a good use of time? Did everyone need to be here?’ We want to empower employees to own their work week.”

Did it help? Coakley thinks so: Every Thursday, an employee DMs her on Slack to let her know how much they appreciate their meeting-free Thursday mornings. Of course, now HR has to do something about Slack fatigue.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected].

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.