WFH? 6 tips to beat Zoom video conferencing fatigue

Aaron Asaro
01 Oct 2020

15 minute read

Have you had a string of Zoom video conferences and felt tired, anxious or worried afterwards? That feeling of being drained is what researchers are calling Zoom fatigue[1]. It's an awkward topic to cover for a company promoting a virtual watercooler 😬 That said, I see my remote team is WFH and encountering Zoom fatigue so I've gathered a bunch of tips to understand and help solve the problem.

In this post you'll discover
  1. The old school approach to effective remote teams
  2. When you should use video in video calls
  3. How external webcams can make you easier to understand
  4. The benefits of respecting the people you're chatting with
  5. Which backgrounds are the best to use on a video call
  6. Why tiled mode is better than focus mode

Beating teleconferencing fatigue #

When people talk in person they use techniques that have been finely tuned over centuries. When speaking in a video conference there are a few problems that we don't have in person. Fortunately there are practical steps you can take to overcome the fatigue you feel.

1. Video conferences introduce delays between what you do and what your remote team perceives #

Video conferences suffer from a slight delay between someone doing something, and the people they're speaking with perceiving it. Why is this a problem? Well, when chatting in person there's usually a small pause in the conversation flow when people switch turns to speak. If that delay stretches on for too long the conversation becomes awkward. In video conferences that awkwardness is ever present because of the delay between participants[2], and even if it's short our brains do perceive it [3].

You can't do much about video conference latency. Instead ask yourself, "does this need to be a video conference at all?" Could you have the call via the plain old telephone service? The audio quality of phone calls is usually better and with much lower latency. That means that you'll be able to hear the short pauses and your conversation will be smoother.

Another problem video conferences suffer from is when people speak at the same time. If you talk over each other in a video conference the software attempts to figure out whose audio gets priority and piped through. This is done to minimise bandwidth usage, but the net effect is to make it impossible to notice if you're speaking over someone. This is also not a problem with phone calls.

If your remote team is spread across the world telephone calls aren't always possible. If that's the case use a video conference, but maybe think about turning off the video? If you're not presenting, and unlikely to need to talk just switch it off. Why? Well, feeling like you're being watched adds stress.

Okay, you might be asking yourself when to use video? If you need that personal connection with a small group of people, video can go a long way.

Audio-only conference calls had a place before video conferencing and they worked well. We'd do well to not forget that as we navigate a world where remote teams begin to dominate.

2. Body language is usually invisible on Zoom calls #

Audio-only calls aren't always an option, so if you must have a video on while WFH think about body language. Most Zoom calls have each participant sitting very close to their camera. The problem is that it's impossible to see the nonverbal signals they're giving off with the rest of their body. We've adapted over many years to use those nonverbal cues to check whether someone understands what we're saying.

Take a look at the screenshot of an interview of Apple CEO Tim Cook [4]. These two are pros at communicating effectively via video conferences. Can you see how they position themselves to help them communicate their points? Seeing how people move their hands and arms helps a great deal when speaking with them.

Apple CEO Tim Cook showing good video-call planning. Camera at eye level. Looking down the camera lens. More than just the face visible. Boring background.

Learn from this picture. If you are sitting close to the screen, try sit a little way back. That way people can see from your waist up. If you have a lot of calls it's worth getting an external webcam and set that a little way back at eye level.

3. Video conference multitasking fragments your attention and burns up energy #

If you have a conversation with people in the same room you can't be distracted by email, or chat messages... peeping at your phone is percieved as rude. However, most people in video conferences are keeping an eye on email, flipping through slides, etc. Fragmenting your attention like this uses a bunch of energy and leaves you zonked at the end of the call.

If you're in a video conference treat the people as if you were in the same room. That means focusing on the topic at hand, rather than checking emails, etc.

4. Varied video conference backgrounds distract us #

Most people check out the backgrounds of the people they're on a video conference call with. If you're on a call with a bunch of people switching attention between all the different backgrounds saps energy. Try coordinate your remote team and set your virtual backgrounds to something uninteresting (e.g. blur) or identical.

5. Video conferences that show a single person at a time can stress us out #

Seeing someone's head near to us can make us feel intimidated [1:1] and our bodies flood with stress hormones. If you're chatting with more than one person it's worth setting your call from focus mode (left) to tiled mode (right) as shown in the image below.

The same video conference in focus (left) and tiled (right) mode showing the difference in head size.

Tiled mode is only useful on a call with a few people. If you're only speaking with one other person, sit further back. You'll get all the benefits we mentioned with improved body language and it'll help the other person relax. Let the other participants know why sitting back is valuable hopefully they'll follow suit.

Sitting further back during video calls will also improve eye contact. Eye contact is important during communication. Without it your brain needs to work harder to discern what's being said from other facial movements and how things are said. This increased load is difficult to manage. Improving eye contact will make you seem more sincere and save you and the people you're speaking with from Zoom fatigue.

To conclude, the reasons we experience fatigue from video conferences are well undestood by science. As we get used to this new world it's worth critically thinking about how we can reduce the strain on ourselves and those we speak to, so we can all be more effective at what we do. Social calls (ahem, like Chinwag's) are a space to speak on video and unwind. Using some of these tips you can do just that.

Key takeaways to beat Zoom video conferencing fatigue
  1. If you can go oldschool and use a landline to keep your conversations in sync.
  2. Go audio-only for video conferences with a bunch of people, keep video for smaller calls where necessary.
  3. Sit further back from your webcam, and invest in an external webcam if you can.
  4. Treat the other people on the video conference with respect - stay focused on the conversation.
  5. Use boring backgrounds to avoid distraction.
  6. Use tiled mode to avoid it seeming like someone's face is in your personal space.

Footnotes

  1. Reinach Wolf C. Virtual platforms are helpful tools but can add to our stress. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-desk-the-mental-health-lawyer/202005/virtual-platforms-are-helpful-tools-can-add-our-stress (accessed Sept 24, 2020). ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. The path your voice travels through the internet is not always the shortest. If you want to dive into a rabbit hole have a read of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_over_IP ↩︎

  3. Wiederhold, B. K. (2020). Connecting Through Technology During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic: Avoiding “Zoom Fatigue.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(7), 437–438. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.29188.bkw ↩︎

  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk3tcpIAYUo ↩︎