I’ve used video conference calls a lot. In fact, on some days I’ll spend up to six hours on back-to-back calls. In 2015, I joined a remote team that made use of Zoom and Google Hangouts (later Meet) for communication. Since my work has been 100% remote in the last six years, I’ve had a lot of hours on video calls. The previous year in the pandemic was little different from the years before, with one notable exception. I’m used to flying out and seeing my teammates throughout the year at conferences, client onsite, or company meetups.
Having that face-to-face time together helped to bridge the gap between long periods of online only communication. There’s something special about eating dinner, having fun, and sitting in a room in physical space. I’m hoping that things can change soon, and that I’ll soon be able to connect with my colleagues on location. However, other than that one, albeit major factor, my life has changed little.
Zoom fatigue is real, and I feel it. Staring at a screen for hours on end, and seeing the faces of others staring back at you is not a natural feeling. When I go to hangout with friends in real life, I don’t look into their eyes for an hour at a time, making direct contact. That’d be creepy, and I’m pretty sure I’d lose all my friends. And yet, this is exactly how video calls work. You look at a screen, stare straight into it, and your colleagues stare straight back at you. It gets tiring and drains energy as time goes on.
I’ve found a few ways to resolve it, and while everyone is different, these little methods help me throughout the week.
First, I turn off my camera. I disable it and join the call with audio only. As an introvert, this helps to lower the temperature of the call, and allows me to pace, look down from the screen, or even go on a walk in nature for an hour. Video calls aren’t natural to the human conscious, so trying to re-enact a meeting in a 1-1 ratio doesn’t really work, at least with current technology. Besides turning off the camera, I also try to minimize whatever screen I’m on; I don’t need to always see the faces of my colleagues, I can hear them just fine.
In situations where it’s not practical to disable the camera, I try a second technique. At work I have a 28 inch monitor. It’s huge, and having a browser up with a dozen faces staring back at me can feel intimidating. Or a single person can loom larger than real life. Often I’ll shrink the window to make the size of others on the call more realistic. I wouldn’t sit in a room with my face two feet away from someone else. Again, that’s creepy. Making the screen smaller tricks my brain a bit, and it feels like they are further away. If I had to guess, having someone’s face right up against yours triggers the fight-or-flight mechanisms in the brain.
Remote work is here to stay, perhaps not in the same way as we’ve seen it in the last year, but it will continue to iterate and become part of our society. It’s important that we adjust and reduce the strain that technology can bring. Video calls, screen sharing, audio calls, and all the other communication tools that come with it are amazing. I couldn’t do my work without them. I enjoy being able to get on calls and see my teammates and friends; it makes a vast difference. However, limiting the artificial tension that arises from a video call can help us all to feel a little less tired at the end of the day.