Zoom book clubs. Raucous Zoom cocktail parties. Reunions with friends. The joys of Zoom, the video chat service that has seen daily usage explode from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million six months later, are legion.
But during the past few months, the darker sides of video chats are coming into focus. Google Trends noted queries about “uncertainty,” “frustration” and “exhaustion” peaked in the first week of May. That is maybe when we realized Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms were here to stay.
As the novelty has evaporated and previously unheard of amounts of screen time take its toll, is the resulting exhaustion inevitable?
It is up to a point, says Kerri Johnson, professor of communication and psychology in the UCLA College, as we struggle with the shock of the new. But it’s not irredeemably so, because we are adaptable creatures.
Johnson — who participated in a UCLA Connections webinar that was, yes, hosted on Zoom — says Zoom fatigue is a real thing, and many factors on Zoom disrupt more traditional interpersonal communication styles.
First, it disrupts joint attention.
“In our typical meeting places, much of our attention is directed toward one thing: to the speaker, the person asking a question, a slide or the storybook for younger children,” says Johnson, who is director of the Social Vision Laboratory at UCLA. “We might all be looking at the speaker on Zoom, but the visible cues of shared attention no longer exist.”
This is partially because of lack of eye contact, which tells us that we are listening, understanding and sharing the experience.
“People like experiences that are ‘easy on the mind,’” Johnson says. “When something is more difficult to process, we like it less. It even extends to reading different fonts. When you think about Zoom, images blur, speech becomes garbled and there are subtle delays. These require us to constantly correct in real time. You may notice there might be more interruptions than usual, exacerbated [by] unreliable service.”
Think about the still-not-agreed-upon etiquette. Do we raise our hand when we want to interrupt? Is it bad manners to mute, cut video or slurp coffee? Must we wear pants? How often do you sit still and stare at a colleague’s face for 30 minutes without interruption?
“Zoom makes self-view a default, which is distracting and taxing,” Johnson says. “Luckily, you can turn [that] off while allowing your video to be seen by interactive partners. I recommend that.”
It’s hard work compensating as we talk over each other and then fall silent. How did our past comfort levels evaporate? It’s the loss of hard-won social cues that degrades the signals.
There are more serious questions, too, about Zoom overscheduling and protracted meetings that participants don’t know how to end. By 6 p.m., you’re feeling more hollowed out than at the close of a normal office day.
Smart Zoom hosts are already moving to fewer, shorter meetings, following up with phone calls or texts, which feel comfortingly familiar. What else can make Zoom life easier?
“Give multiple options for how to meet,” Johnson recommends, such as Slack or email. “Establish the norms for meetings that you host, acknowledge that there may be interruptions and invite attendees to control video and sound. [Use] a profile photo, which feels more inviting than a black screen.”
She also suggests 10-minute breaks during and between meetings — enough time to reconnect with family or pets at home and refresh. Also, re-create those watercooler moments with office friends.
Perhaps most importantly, Johnson adds, cut people some slack, including yourself. We are navigating this new world together. “This is a challenging time for everyone, and people are doing their best.”