As many of our workplaces have gone remote, more of our meetings have become virtual. Now meetings have weird echoes, you and your coworkers interrupt each other, half a dozen heads stare directly back at you, and –
“THERE’S A SNAKE IN MY BOOT!”
“Uh, sorry, what was that?”
“REACH FOR THE SKYYY!”
“Sorry! That’s my kid’s Woody toy…”
Your virtual work meeting has officially been derailed. Everyone begins laughing, and you watch your coworker frantically mute his computer microphone, then turn to wave his son and his noisy toy out of the room. After a long day of video meetings, as amusing as the interruption by Woody from Disney’s Toy Story is, you have no patience for it. You’re not working longer hours – you don’t even have to commute into the office right now – so why do you feel so much more tired than usual?
After work, the video conferencing continues: Happy hour with coworkers, Facetime with Mom for Mother’s Day, or celebrating a friend’s birthday with a dozen other people. Many of us are on more video calls than ever, and if you find it exhausting, you’re not alone.
What makes video calls so draining? And how can you cope with this more-virtual landscape?
Guard your attention
To understand why video conferencing is so tiring, it helps to know how hard your brain needs to work to stay focused virtually.
When you’re part of an in-person meeting, everyone is in the same room with the same one or two distractions. Maybe a fire truck goes by, or someone walks in late. In a video conference, however, there are a lot more distractions. Echoes and delays can disrupt communication throughout the call. You can see into everyone’s personal lives. You may strain to see what’s on the shelf behind your boss, or your meeting may be disrupted by your coworker’s child, pet, or spouse in the background.
In addition to these distractions, our brains need to work harder on video to process sounds and non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice, and body language. Silence in real-life conversations offers a natural and comfortable pause. In video conferences, silence may be perceived as inattention, disagreement, or technology’s fault, which can put us on edge.
In real-life meetings, you and your coworkers have options for where to rest your eyes – on your computers, out the window, at your notes, or on each other and the person speaking. Looking away from your screen in a video conference might make your peers think that you’re not paying attention, maybe checking social media or email. Paying attention to everything happening on your screen without the natural visual breaks we get in real-life groups takes a lot of energy!
Speaking of checking your email, how often do you find yourself trying to multi-task on video calls? Sure, you can respond to an email, fire off a message to a coworker, and scroll through Instagram during your meeting… but that doesn’t mean you should. We all like to think that we can multi-task to get more done in less time. However, research shows that trying to do multiple things at once actually reduces our performance. Switching between tasks requires us to turn on and off different parts of our brain, which can cost you as much as 40 percent of your productive time, and make you less likely to remember things well compared to singularly-focused peers.
There are ways to guard your attention and minimize distractions. Some noises, like keyboard tapping, swallowing noises, or shifting in your seat can be minimized by using headsets or keeping everyone except the current speaker muted. A headset can also make it easier to hear others and can block out noise from the room you’re in. Choose to work in spaces with few distractions, and that have soft surfaces like carpeting and upholstered furniture to reduce echoing – think about how recording studios are set up with foam on the walls.
Hot Tip: While you’re on a video call, minimize other programs like email or chat, and put away your phone. Staying focused on one task at a time can help reduce fatigue, and may actually increase your productivity. Sending that dancing parrot GIF to your coworker can wait.
Build in breaks
When you’re in a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you. It’s like you’re on a stage, and there’s a feeling like you need to perform. Video conferencing requires you to be “on stage” for the duration of your hour-long meeting. Multiply that by eight or more hours in your workday, plus Zoom happy hour or Facetime with family, and it’s no wonder we feel depleted. You’ve just played the leading role in a play with eight or more acts!
It’s not just work-related video that can be draining. Because we use video conferencing tools for work, it makes everything else – dating, family talks, hanging out with friends, happy hour – also feel like “work.” Imagine if you went to your favorite local spot to relax on the patio with a cold drink, and your boss, your college professor, your parents, and your ex were all there. That’s what your brain feels like trying to relax on a video call.
It’s important to build in breaks between or on video calls, similar to the ones you might have in real life. Take a look at your calendar. How could you arrange your schedule to free yourself from video in your day? Which meetings could be phone calls or emails instead? For longer meetings, give people the option to shut off their video, or only have the speakers appear on video. Make virtual events like happy hours or birthday celebrations opt-in rather than mandatory, and respect people’s choice to avoid another video session. Finally, connect with friends and family in ways that don’t include a screen – by telephone, email, or old-fashioned letters – if you can’t see them in real life.
Adjusting to all the change we experience is exhausting enough. Make video calls easier for yourself by minimizing distractions, only using video when necessary, finding other ways to connect, and taking a break between video calls.
Hot Tip: Schedule meetings to be 25 or 50 minutes long instead of the traditional 30 or 60 minutes, and hold yourself and your teams to ending meetings on time. Use the time between meetings to focus your eyes on something in the distance, away from your screen. You can also spend that time catching up on the emails or messages you didn’t respond to during the meeting (because you weren’t multi-tasking, right?)