Anyone who has worked remotely (and that is, probably, everyone) can relate to the idea behind this study: for the past year and half, instead of having the possibility of commuting to work and meeting our colleagues in person, we have been forced to perform our daily work tasks at our computers at home, staring at the same monitor to interact with colleagues as well as keeping in touch with friends and family, and as if that were not already annoying enough, to maintain a presentable appearance in front of the same monitor, while watching our own video right next to others’.
It is clear that virtual meetings make us tired; what is less clear is why? And what is perhaps even more important is how we can reduce or avoid this exhaustion?
Interestingly, while the number of virtual meetings that people attend post pandemic lockdown has increased, the overall time spent in virtual meetings has decreased by 11.5%. This implies that the virtual meeting fatigue (a.k.a. Zoom fatigue) does not seem to be a function of the time spent in meetings. Some researchers have suggested that other properties of virtual meetings might contribute to fatigue. One important factor could be the camera!
In 1959, sociologist Erving Goffman came up with the idea of Self-Presentation Theory, proposing that we have an innate desire to be seen in a favourable light and to convey a positive image of ourselves. This desire has some obvious benefits. It helps us take care of our physical well-being and health; but it can also be mentally exhausting. In the technical language of psychologists, maintaining a favourable image of ourselves is a cognitively demanding activity. Self-presentation requires carefully monitoring ourself, imagining what we look like in the eyes of others and actively managing our expressions during social interactions. Having the camera on in a Skype or Zoom meeting may be like being in a party with a mirror in one hand (and, hopefully, our drink in the other hand), constantly checking ourselves while chatting with other guests. Exhausting.
Taking this idea up, Schokley and colleagues wondered if virtual meeting fatigue is related to having to watch ourselves along with looking at others during virtual meetings. They designed an experiment to evaluate the effects of camera use on virtual meeting fatigue.
An experiment was conducted over 4-weeks. The scientists had 103 full-time, remote employees from one organisation randomly assigned to one of the two conditions of camera-on and camera-off for all virtual meetings for first two weeks, and then reassigned to the other condition for the remaining two weeks, in a counterbalanced manner. Importantly, these employees used to work remotely also before the pandemic, with a camera optional policy.
Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire every day right after work, reporting their fatigue (“right now I feel fatigued”), their voice (“in meetings today, when I had something to say, I felt like I had a voice”) and their engagement (“in meetings today, I felt engaged”), all on a 5-point scale (1=strongly agree to 5=strongly disagree). Gender and organisational tenure were also recorded. The voice and engagement questions were asked to see if camera use impacted the outcome of meeting for employees.
In addition, they asked if individual differences affected the effects of camera on fatigue: what if the cultural pressure on women to be “effortlessly perfect” made them more vulnerable to camera fatigue? Another possibility: would junior members of an organisation who have less job security and lower status be more affected by the camera exhaustion?
The results showed that using a camera was positively related to fatigue. In addition, they found that fatigue was negatively related to feeling of having a voice and being engaged with the meeting.
Finally, it was found that women were indeed more susceptible to camera fatigue. In addition, people with lower status in organisation were more strongly affected by the camera fatigue. Interestingly, the fatigue effect was not related to the amount of time spent in the virtual meetings or the number of them.
One important question remains: in the experiments explained here, in the “Camera On” condition, the person participating in the experiment and everybody else in the meeting see the person’s face. In the “Camera Off” condition, no one sees the person. There is a possible middle ground: when the camera is on and others see the person but the person’s own camera view is off (and s/he cannot watch themselves). This is the closest condition to face to face interaction. We do not know if this combination would be better or worse for helping people cope with the stress anf fatigue of virtual meetings.
To leave you with an interesting idea to think about, look at this Deutsche Welle report showing that more and more people are dissatisfied with their appearance on video calls and want cosmetic surgery! Video calls drive ′Zoom boom′ in cosmetic surgery amid pandemic