Video chat has dominated our work and social lives for more than a year. How can we better adjust to this mandatory, draining technology that's going nowhere?

I’ve learned a lot of things about myself in this year of social distancing and pandemic lockdowns. One of those things is crystal clear: I never want to use Zoom again.

It’s not because it’s not a great app. In fact, without it, our pandemic experiences would likely have been far, far lonelier. And Zoom has almost single handedly made remote work, which many companies viewed with skepticism before Covid-19, actually possible.

No, the reason I want out is because of Zoom fatigue. Simply put, Zoom drains your energy, because it flattens all of your social interactions – personal or professional – into the same, unnatural grid of disembodied faces, where being stared at and inadvertently interrupting people is the name of the game. And although video conferencing has been around for years – almost a century, technically – Zoom felt like it erupted into our lives overnight, and within a specific, unprecedented landscape of pandemic fear and anxiety. As a result, it’s not exactly something I’ve come to develop a positive association with.

Yet expert consensus points to remote work sticking around after the Covid-19 era – which means Zoom won’t be going anywhere, either. So, if widespread Zoom use is going to continue, how will we keep Zoom fatigue at bay? If it’s going to be an ongoing, important part of our professional lives, how can we learn to love it – and can we?

'Work made us do it'

A year into the pandemic, research is starting to confirm what we feel instinctively – that video conferencing saps our mental resources. A new study from Stanford University in California, published last month in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour and the first peer-reviewed article to look at Zoom fatigue, pinpoints the more granular reasons we experience the phenomenon. The four chief factors include constant, close-up, interrogation-like eye contact from the other participants that doesn’t go away, even if you’re not the one speaking; constantly looking at your own face (which has led to self-esteem problems and plastic surgery for some); having to sit still for an extended period; and not being able to easily and accurately pick up on cues like body language.

Zoom has been a godsend in many ways during the pandemic, but experts say its dominating presence in both work and social life makes it feel inescapable and tiring (Credit: Alamy)

Zoom has been a godsend in many ways during the pandemic, but experts say its dominating presence in both work and social life makes it feel inescapable and tiring (Credit: Alamy)

The fact that we’ve been sitting in front of a webcam all day isn’t the only reason for Zoom fatigue, however. Many of us were abruptly forced to adopt it at the start of the pandemic; we didn’t have any choice. With Zoom, “our work made us do it, our schools made us do it, seeing our friends made us do it”, says Jeff Hancock, founding director of Stanford University’s Social Media Lab and one of the researchers who worked on the new study.

Yet for most people’s day-to-day lives, Zoom is “what we call a ‘heavy’ technology”, he says, which is why video conferencing – an emotionally taxing and technologically demanding medium – sat on the periphery for decades, until Covid-19 propelled it to the fore. “You have to look good, you have to pay attention, you have to pay attention to the area behind you, and that’s heavy,” he says.

Like hand sanitiser and face masks, Zoom has become an indelible symbol of the Covid-19 era

Make no mistake, Zoom has been an integral lifeline. But the novelty is wearing seriously thin, in a year which has been defined by “Zoom with your grandmother, Zoom with your friends, Zoom with your colleagues”, says Anne-Laure Fayard, associate professor in the technology management and innovation department at New York University. The app has effectively flattened all of our interactions into the same tool, which makes it feel repetitive, inescapable and mandatory. “The pandemic created this sense that we only had one option, and that option was forced on everyone.”

That means that, like hand sanitiser and face masks, Zoom has become an indelible symbol of the Covid-19 era. “For many of us, Zoom fatigue is really work fatigue, pandemic fatigue, lockdown fatigue and social isolation fatigue,” says Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California who specialises in communications and media.

Mix-and-match approach

Once we exit this crisis period, however, it makes sense that our relationship with Zoom will evolve, experts say. After all, though the process is usually slower than Zoom take-up in the pandemic, we’re used to adopting new technologies and finding the best ways to use them.

“Our norms will change. When we first had elevators, everyone would stare at each other like, ‘oh God’. And now in an elevator, we face forward,” says Hancock. And when ride-sharing services like Uber first appeared: “’Do I get in the front? Do I talk?’ And now it’s, yeah, you sit in the back; you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.” We figured out the more awkward and messier bits as we went, and eventually adapted to the technologies.

In the case of Zoom, the hypothesis is we’ll use it more sparingly, and in situations that truly call for it. A great place to start is to really think on why we hold video conferencing in high regard in the first place.

“The assumption is face-to-face is always great, and so then we always need to have technology mimicking face-to-face,” says Fayard. “I think that’s why some people want video, and not just an email.”

But not everything needs to be face-to-face. “It’s about variety – I call it a ‘mix-and-match’ approach,” says Fayard. Juggle Zoom, email, in-person meetings, phone calls and other communication methods, she says, depending on “organisational needs, different types of meetings and different personalities of [employees]”.

Doing something while you're Zooming, like preparing and sharing a family meal, can potentially minimise the unnatural-feeling, draining effects of video calls (Credit: Alamy)

Doing something while you're Zooming, like preparing and sharing a family meal, can potentially minimise the unnatural-feeling, draining effects of video calls (Credit: Alamy)

The team at Stanford suggest practical tips that can help, like making “audio only” meetings the default for your organisation, which can help eliminate the main Zoom fatigue triggers outlined in the study. They also suggest using an external webcam and keyboard to allow greater flexibility in your seating arrangement; meaning you won’t be staring mugshot-style at the screen for the entire call.

Plus, Zoom and its competitors will roll out new features that minimise the ways the apps drain our energy. For example, you might have noticed a new feature on Zoom that blurs your background – possibly eliminating the stress of having colleagues peek into your messy kitchen or judge your personal items. Some providers are working on tools that will record meetings so people can watch them asynchronously. (Hancock also says Zoom has reached out to the Stanford team to open a dialogue on how to improve.)

More choice, more appreciation?

Of course, the passage of time will also play a role in the ebbing of Zoom fatigue. Social distancing measures will lift, travel will begin again and we’ll be not only be able to head back into the office, but also visit friends and family in-person – meaning we can choose what we use Zoom for, and what it’s suited for, instead of it being the default. 

Judith Donath, fellow at Harvard University’s internet and society centre, says she’s been taking online photography classes during the pandemic, a situation that’s perfect for Zoom. You’re not staring unblinkingly at each other in a sea of talking heads, because there’s no need to. Rather, you might all be looking at a fellow student’s photo on the screen and critiquing it with audio only.

“I’d much rather do those [classes] online than in person,” says Dolath. “You’re not having an intimate conversation with someone – the teacher is talking to the class in general, and people are all addressing the general class” when they speak – so why do you need to see their face?

Now, in what we fervently hope are the closing months of the pandemic, it may be time to realise that just because we can communicate via video call doesn’t mean we necessarily should. We want the facilities and conveniences Zoom affords us – but going forward we’re going to be able to choose how we use it and when.

For me, I’ve found I like the app best when I’m Zooming while I’m doing something else, just as Dolath says: playing video games with friends, for example. And even after the pandemic, my scattered family will still be far-flung – so we might be able to gather virtually to make Christmas cookies or a holiday dinner, with Zoom on in the background, as Hancock did with his own family last year. It makes for a more natural and comfortable video call – as opposed to one full of people staring at each other on a webcam in the chairs, trying desperately to replicate being in person, only to clumsily talk over one another or tell people they’re on mute.

“I feel a little bit like Zoom is the hammer for everything right now,” he says. “Let’s not use a hammer. Not everything is a nail.”

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