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Psychologists say the lack of body-language cues can make virtual meetings more challenging.

francescoridolfi.com/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

We’re back to complaining about meetings. In the old days – when we worked side-by-side in offices – there were too many of them. But working from home these days, most people are not rid of the scourge. Meetings are as easy to schedule on Zoom and other electronic platforms as in the office.

They add to our eye strain as we spend even more time on our computer screen than before. But even more insidious are some unique psychological characteristics of video conferencing that zap our energy and are now being called “Zoom fatigue.”

Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyber-psychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, explained to National Geographic that during an in-person meeting or conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken and also partly on non-verbal cues. But when others in your Zoom meeting are captured just from the shoulders up – zoomed in – you lose the feedback that might come from watching hand movements and other body language. As well, if the video quality is poor, facial expressions will be hard to pick up. That leaves us concentrating on words, without other signals, and is draining.

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Gallery view – the Hollywood Squares-like array of meeting participants, each in their small box – seems to accentuate the problem. Our brain is fighting to decode incoming messages and struggles since nobody, not even the speaker, is dominant. In a sense, we’re multitasking – psychologists call it continuous partial attention – and again it can drain the brain.

One of those boxes on the screen is feeding back our own image, and that can create problems as well. We’re not used to seeing ourselves, and we may be fighting concerns about our appearance as well as our performance. Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies workplace well-being and teamwork effectiveness, told the BBC, “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.”

In Psychology Today, Suzanne Degges-White, a professor at Northern Illinois University, writes “part of the craziness now is that our homes are now our workplaces, and our screens are our sole connection to folks beyond our household. This can make us feel like ‘living headshots’ since all we can do now to project our identity is a thumbnail image of our faces.”

She recommends the following:

  • Use your phone, not your computer, and call into some of your meetings. “When we’re not chained into posing as a ‘living headshot,’ we can move around and step onto our porch or sit outside in the sunshine,” she observes. “When we’re a face on a screen, it’s hard to get away with a little inattention. Cut yourself some slack and ‘phone it in’ next time. Your overstrained eyes and the muscles you use for that ‘attentive meeting participant face’ will thank you.”
  • Take a break away from the screen between meetings and get fresh air, a glass of water or some exercise.
  • Write notes during the session, ideally after phoning rather than videoing in to the group. She says taking notes by hand focuses us on what is being said and increases retention. That helps counter the tendency of multiple video conferences in one day blurring into one another.
  • Create a boundary between work and play by making your home office feel different from your living area, even if it’s the same space. Change the lighting or use a different coffee mug to give some psychological distance.

This is all new for most of us, so it’s worth monitoring your meetings and trying some of her suggestions.

Quick hits

  • Add some fun to your Zoom meetings by having everyone show a virtual background of their own choosing and letting participants guess where the picture was taken, suggests marketing director Isabelle Bart.
  • Even if the pandemic means your job interview is by phone, dress up for it. Lounging in your pajamas will be comfortable but might bring your attention and energy down, says journalist Stephanie Nieves.
  • Liz Fosslien, head of content at Humu, which uses behavioral science to make work better, suggests updating Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for your time as a coronavirus remote worker. The base (or physiological needs) are in this case coffee, and that then moves on to safety, which is stable Wi-Fi; love and belonging, which is chat and texting; esteem, which is likes and favourites; self-actualization, which is putting your phone on airplane mode.
  • Memorize the opening and ending of your presentations, advises consultant Gary Genard. It will reduce anxiety and help you avoid stumbling over those critical parts.
  • Quickly start a new event on Google Calendar by pressing “c” on your keyboard. Save it with Ctrl-S (not Ctrl-Enter) says tech writer JR Raphael.

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