Chris Read: To Zoom or not to Zoom, that is the question

Are you experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’? Chris Read looks at the pluses and minuses of videocalls that have become part of our daily lives during the pandemic

The verb to zoom is not new to the English language. It means to move with a loud low hum or to go speedily. To make things difficult for those learning English, there is a new verb emerging: to ‘zoom’.

Its meaning will be found in context on how the verb is used, “I’ll zoom you later”, meaning I’ll do a video call with you later via Teams/Meet/WebEx/Zoom. On the other hand, “I’ll zoom around to yours”, meaning I’ll come to your house/office quickly. Context of language is communicated not only in the language used but in the all-important nuance of nonverbal cues.

We have all used one form of video meeting now. My 92-year-old mother has used one. My dog, Oscar, has appeared on a few. Our diaries are peppered with them. Whilst in pre-pandemic times, video meets were optional and would often be a fallback solution if a face-to-face meeting was not possible.

Since the start of the pandemic, video meets have become the default – the only way to really ‘meet’. Gone are the business meetings where you check to see if, as a visitor, they offer you a biscuit or whether the coffee is fresh or machine drawn. Gone are the quickies of a chat and pint. Gone too are the days of racking up business expenses and carbon miles…. sad really.

How often have you heard friends and colleagues bemoaning this form of virtual interaction and how exhausting endless video calls are? You won’t be too surprised to know that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real and a recognized condition that psychologists are now studying.

A recent well-referenced study on Zoom fatigue, published by Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University, looks into the non-verbal overload of endless video calls.

Bailenson notes, “On Zoom, behaviour ordinarily reserved for close relationships — such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close-up — has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, co-workers, and even strangers”.

‘Zoomed out’

There is now a Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale (ZEF).  So, you can see just how ‘zoomed out’ you are. The study looks at four primary reasons why video calls create fatigue:

The first key reason is the excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is intense. In face-to-face meetings, the eye-to-eye engagement is between yourself and the speaker or possibly elsewhere if, like me,  you have a restless butterfly mind.

My challenge is that, even when I am not talking, participants in the video call are still watching me. I have to be on best behaviour – no bodily readjustments or grooming is allowed. Furthermore, it is commonly accepted how important nonverbal cues are to effective communication.

Measures as extreme as 15% of our communication is understood verbally and 85% is understood through body language. We have to be at our very best therefore to take it in when all we have is verbal with no body to observe.

The study comments on the faces on video calls being too large, or too close for comfort. Our brains interpret these intense interactions as situations that will lead to conflict or mating! Bailenson talks about our hyper-aroused state during our working day. He recommends turning off your camera for periods and making views of others on your Zoom sessions smaller to alleviate this overload of the senses.

The second causal factor for zoom fatigue is staring at yourself during all video meetings in real time. Notwithstanding looking at myself all day long, I am tiring of participants noting the shininess of my bald head or the relaxed nature of my attire. There is much research out there on negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself reflected in mirrors for extend periods of time, unless of course you are Narcissus, whereupon you will be fine.

The story of Narcissus is sad as eventually, after gazing and falling in love with himself by looking in a pool of water, he stooped to drink the water, only to realise that his image of lust was a reflection. He killed himself because he could not have his object of desire.

Thirdly, video calls reduce our mobility. Before the pandemic, our schedules were no less full than they are today. In order to get from one meeting to another, there would be a physical shift from one space to another. With video calls there is no time between meetings. You may be able to nip to the kitchen for a cup of tea and have a fridge moment. There is growing research now that finds when people are moving they perform better. We have become slaves to calendaring and time slots.

We are imprisoned between the boundaries of half hourly chunks in online schedules. I’ve taken to colouring meetings in different shades on my Outlook calendar to see if I can create a nice collage of colour. How our lives have been trivialised and altered by the drive of virtual efficiency over our natural primate behaviours.

Non-verbal cues

Lastly, we have to work a lot harder in video calls to send and receive those all-important non-verbal cues. A lot more thought has to go into a conversation which before zooming was a more natural interaction.

Zoom has increased our cognitive load and as Bailenson says, “you’re using mental calories in order to communicate”. What a shame that mental calories don’t translate to food calories.

One benefit of Zoom fatigue to the rag trade is that, as non-essential shops re-open, elasticated trousers and leggings and other video call-friendly outfits are zooming off the shelves.

Chris Read is group CEO of Dunstan Thomas