As remote work continues for many people, what is Zoom fatigue and what to do about it, and how are videoconferencing platforms adapting their services to the hybrid future?
As COVID-19 sets out to change the world forever, join Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer as they think about what’s to come in the future of business.
This episode is part of a podcast series covering what COVID-19 will mean for the business world, where we look at the impact on the economy, businesses, industries, workers and society. This is part of our ongoing coverage of the impact of COVID-19 on the future of business.
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Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights.
Sandra And this is Corona Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter.
Kai And I'm Kai Riemer.
Sandra And we're back unpacking the impact of COVID-19 on business, the economy, industry, government, workers and society, and looking at the effects of the pandemic while still in lockdown here in Sydney.
Kai And this podcast is part of a larger initiative by The University of Sydney Business School.
Sandra And you can still find our COVID business impact dashboard online at sbi.sydney.edu.au/coronavirus.
Kai And since in Sydney, we are back in lockdown again, after a new outbreak with the Delta variant. We have been spending a lot of time on Zoom or in various types of video conferences again.
Sandra So we thought we'd have a quick look at how we're still zooming.
Kai And we did do an episode on zooming the first time around, about a year ago in August last year.
Sandra And back then we were trying to get to grips with the fact that most of us were having most of our meetings on some kind of video conferencing platform, whether that was Zoom or Teams or FaceTime, and dealing mostly with the fact that while this was allowing us to continue to work or continue our education online, it came with a lot of new problems.
Kai Yeah, so 'zooming' really has become a household name. And it has changed the way in which we do business meetings, in which we do education, deliver health care, but it also has put a lot of stress on people and led to a phenomenon that is now called 'zoom fatigue'.
Sandra And zoom fatigue has entered not only our vocabulary as this term that is basically a catch all for every kind of way we get tired while on video calls. But it's also entered pretty much all of our lives.
Kai And zoom fatigue was already a thing a year ago. And back then people speculated that it might be related to the problems with the quality of the video and the sound when everyone had to move into the home and the equipment might not have been up to the standard. But also that it's related to not being able to pick up on all the non-verbal cues when everyone's only a tiny picture on a screen.
Sandra That led, even back then, to speculation that it had something to do with the cognitive load, with the fact that most of us were trying to pick up the non-verbal cues that we would easily pick up in a face-to-face conversation, but now we were staring at a grid of faces or torsos trying to make sense of it all the time. And this was tiring us out.
Kai But since then, a whole lot of research has been done on the phenomenon. And there's now a number of reasons given for why people suffer from zoom fatigue.
Sandra First is staring at people up close for extended periods of time. And this is not something that you would normally do in a face-to-face meeting, you might sometimes look at their faces, sometimes they might be across the table from you, but you could avert your gaze, you would look at your notes or out the window. But now we're kind of stuck looking at faces up close all the time.
Kai And not just one face. Often we have a gallery of faces, and everyone is staring at us at once a phenomenon which researchers have termed 'hyper gaze'.
Sandra And researchers point to the fact that from an evolutionary standpoint, normally if people were staring at you and you were staring at them up close, this meant that you were either just about to get into a fight or you were about to mate. So this induces a level of stress that doesn't seem to abate as we spend our days on Zoom all the time.
Kai And so staring into a whole lot of people's faces or they induces stress. And what we can do about it is of course, maybe bring other windows into the foreground not always look at the faces make one face big on the screen so that you're only looking at the person speaking, not at everyone's faces, or indeed sit a little bit further away from the screen to alleviate the effect.
Sandra The other reason given for why Zoom is so fatiguing is that we are seeing our own faces all the time. Normally, we would only catch glimpses of ourselves in the mirror or while we take selfies. But now we're kind of stuck looking at ourselves on the screen all the time.
Kai And while this is unnatural, it again contributes to anxiety about our own visual appearance. And research has shown that this might be more stressful for women who even under normal circumstances, face more scrutiny about their visual appearance, and now find themselves under the microscope constantly in a Zoom call, especially when they see their own faces on the screen.
Sandra So research out of Stanford University recently published, and we'll again include links in the shownotes, has found that women do experience significantly more resume fatigue than men do.
Kai So what you can do about it is short of turning off your video, is to change your posture, turn yourself away from the screen during a meeting, which also helps with the stress that is put on the body from sitting in the same posture, facing the screen for extended periods of time. And also negotiate break times where everyone gets up and leaves the screen for a while to just refresh and focus on something else than, you know, people's faces.
Sandra And sitting around there's also another reason for zoom fatigue. We've talked before on the podcast about how sitting is the new smoking. Sitting still, for extended periods on time is not only unhealthy, but it's also quite unnatural. So finding ways in which we can move around or taking breaks in which to move is something that again reduces zoom fatigue.
Kai And there is of course, another solution, which is not to do video calls at all. Research out of Carnegie Mellon University has studied the effects of both audio and video communication on the effectiveness of collaboration between people. In this instance, they did experimental research on duos, or pairs of people, who were performing tasks with each other. And it turned out that video can actually get in the way.
Sandra So surprisingly, their findings were that video conferencing, hampered group collaboration and hampered problem solving.
Kai And the researchers attribute this to the fact that audio cues are really important in moving forward a conversation, in making arguments, in outlining points during conversation and that video cues can actually get in the way and overlay audio cues, making the pickup of those cues less effective.
Sandra The authors also make the point that going to audio calls only might also alleviate the problems with unequal contributions to the conversations that often happen when people have video on, and when the gender dynamics or hierarchy dynamics come into play and some people tend to dominate the conversations over others.
Kai So phone conversations, audio only, might actually be an equaliser when it comes to contributions to a conversation, taking off the table some of those hierarchical or gender effects.
Sandra And taking video off the table and going back, when appropriate, to phone conversations might also alleviate the problem that we all experience on Zoom calls where many people have their camera off, have their sound off. And it's basically just a whole bunch of black square that you're staring at on the screen.
Kai Which can be equally unsettling and stressful then staring into a whole lot of people's faces, because you know, you're just feeling lonely when people are disengaged. So taking video off the table might actually be a good thing in many conversations, especially around collaborative tasks.
Sandra And again, we'll include links in the shownotes with research that shows that only about 20% of people are really engaged on video conferencing platforms.
Kai So it is worth thinking about when video actually contributes. So for example, meeting someone for the first time, establishing a relationship, having a relaxed social gathering, video might actually be a good idea. Whereas in certain collaborative tasks among colleagues who already know each other, audio only might sometimes just be the better medium.
Sandra Before we wrap up this episode, it's worth having a look at where to next with zooming and with video conferencing.
Kai So one of the things that companies like Zoom are working on is levelling the playing field between attendees in hybrid setups where some people are on a screen who dial-in online, while others are sitting around the table in a room.
Sandra We've all been in that meeting where there's 10 of us around the table in a meeting room, and then there's another 10 people joining online who are working remotely. What we often end up with is 10 faces on the screen and then one small square with 10 tiny, tiny people clustered around the table.
Kai So in order to give people who dial-in online access to the people who are in the room, you know, tiny little people in one square, Zoom the company, for example, is experimenting with a feature that would allow a machine learning algorithm to isolate people's faces and add them as tiles to the gallery during the meeting, using one really good camera or multiple cameras scattered across the room.
Sandra So aside from the fact that this will take us back to the zoom fatigue problems that we've had before It would help with trying to manage some of the challenges associated with hybrid meetings. And it would go one step towards enabling better collaboration between people who are back in the office and people who are still working remotely.
Kai And another feature that would contribute to bringing people in the room and online on the same footing, is for the people in the room to participate to the text chat of the meeting.
Sandra Again, we've all been in that meeting where there's a chat conversation happening that's displayed on the large screen in the meeting room. But then people in the meeting room since they're only in one tile have no way of contributing to that conversation.
Kai So the idea here would be to allow people around the table to dial-in to the text chat from their own devices without actually joining the video conference as such, so that, you know, people don't have to nominate the one person reaching for the keyboard on the table to type on everyone's behalf.
Sandra And there's one other way that video conferencing platforms are trying to enable better collaboration, and that is real time translation in meetings. And again, companies like Zoom have been looking into ways in which people who speak different languages can participate in real-time to a conversation. And we're seeing a number of acquisitions of startups that are doing work in real-time translation.
Kai So Zoom, the company acquired a German startup called Kites, which uses a machine learning algorithm to create a real-time translation of what people are saying in a meeting. And presumably, this would add a synthetic voice over the top of what the person is saying, but could also be done as a text captioning. So a speech-to-text conversion and then the translation of the text itself.
Sandra So whilst hopefully we figure out better ways to zoom and better ways to collaborate or to enable hybrid work...
Kai Some people like Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan has called for an end of Zoom, cancel all Zoom meetings and go back to the office.
Sandra But since we're still in lockdown here in Sydney, we might just take some of those Zoom calls and make a phone call instead. But for now, that's all we have time for.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Outro From The University of Sydney Business School, this was Corona Business Insights, the podcast that explores the future of business in the wake of the global pandemic.
Sandra Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, WeChat and Flipboard. And subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts.