Anne had the golden summer of her life as far as freedom and frolic went. She walked, rowed, berried, and dreamed to her heart’s content; and when September came she was bright-eyed and alert, with a heart full of ambition and zest once more.
~Anne of Green Gables
I hope you had a golden summer. I did. Swims, picnics, bike rides, skinned knees, and an epic trip to New Brunswick to catch up on a year’s worth of missed grandparent time. In New Brunswick, we had one especially magical evening. After a full day of work, we raced to the beach at 5:30, swam in the ocean in the warm of the evening, walked the beach while kids dug in the sand and the sun set.
After, we went to the wharf for a late supper, where we indulged in fried fish while my children somehow attained the Platonic ideal of child restaurant behaviour1. As we left, the boys marvelled at the moon and asked to see how black the water looked — one thing they learned this summer is that the ocean reflects the colour of the sky.
Work-from-anywhere flexibility affords these kinds of wonderful moments. But it also meant slogging through several weeks where work felt like drudgery, with every cue around me screaming, “You should be on vacation!” I am too much a creature of routine and habit to want to work from far-flung locales more than occasionally. But even if I didn’t get freedom and frolic to my heart’s content, two small boys did. And I wouldn’t trade our night at the beach for anything.
Meanwhile, the realities of September have settled in. One boy started preschool on Tuesday and I’ve just returned from a somewhat tearful drop-off at the first day of senior kindergarten. Not so long ago, we all imagined that September would mark a return to some actual face-to-face working. Delta had other ideas, and so we face down another pandemic wave and another season of virtual meetings. I confess this has not done wonders for my feelings of zest and ambition, but at least it provides a convenient pretext for a deep dive on the causes and cures for so-called ‘Zoom fatigue.’
Is ‘Zoom Fatigue’ Just About the Meetings?
It’s curious that we have ascribed the (undeniable!) fatigue of remote work specifically to video meetings. There are two theories as to why video meetings are more tiring—the scheduling and self-presentation hypotheses. I think both are basically correct, but also incomplete. There are so many other things besides meetings that go into getting work done. Is it really just the meetings leaving us all so tired?
The Scheduling Hypothesis
The scheduling explanation for zoom fatigue rests on how virtual meetings allow us to schedule back-to-back meetings with much greater intensity. In the before times, even the busiest calendars afforded small breaks to move between meeting rooms, walk someone to the door, get the projector to connect. But now we sit in the same chair and stare at the same screen, moving between virtual meetings with just a few clicks.
Earlier this year, Microsoft put out some interesting research around the effect of back-to-back meetings. They had volunteers participate in video meetings while hooked up to EEGs that monitored their brain activity. On one day, they attended four back-to-back 30-minute meetings, while on the other they did ten minutes of app-facilitated meditation between meetings. The results showed that with the ten minutes of meditation, beta waves associated with stress did not build up over the course of the meetings. Ten-minute breaks also increased frontal alpha asymmetry, which is associated with being more engaged in meetings.
“Take breaks,” is good advice, but gosh is it hard to execute. There’s such a strong temptation to squeeze one more meeting into calendars, or to let the meeting run long because you don’t have a hard stop. Even when you succeed in keeping breaks in your calendar, it takes tremendous discipline to stop yourself from filling those ten minutes with emails or instant messages.
Rather than leave it up to individuals, I wonder if it might be better to facilitate those breaks within the meetings themselves. If I was running an hour-long internal meeting, I think I’d try to interrupt it halfway through: “Okay, everyone: mute buttons on, cameras off, and stand up and walk away from your computer and phone for the next ten minutes.” Just as it’s easier to work hard in a group fitness class, I think group breaks would be easier to stick to.
The Self Presentation Hypothesis
Self presentation is the idea that most of us want to present a positive image of ourselves to the world, but projecting this image takes significant mental energy. Video meetings heighten our self presentation efforts, partly because we can see our own image (at least by default), and partly because video meetings subject us to the eye gaze of others for much longer and at much closer range.
A recent study explored the self presentation hypothesis. Over a four-week period, workers were randomly assigned to keep their cameras off for the first two weeks and on for the second, or vice versa. Each day, study participants reported on how fatigued they felt. The researchers found that having cameras on for virtual meetings is more fatiguing, irrespective of the number or duration of the virtual meetings. The effect was more pronounced for women and for newer employees with less tenure in the organization.
The study also explored whether there were benefits in terms of feeling engaged or having voice in meetings. The results here were less clear-cut, but the additional fatigue from cameras on seemed to negatively affect both engagement and voice. But the researchers caution against over-generalizing these findings, since they studied the effects on the person turning the camera on or off, not the experiences of other individuals in the meetings.
For me, this research makes it clear that there are costs associated with having video meetings. But my hunch is that for some meetings, those costs are completely worth it. I’ve been participating in an online group2 whose cameras-on policy aligns with their goal of creating community, rather than just hosting a webinar series. I think it would be hard for them to achieve their community goals without cameras, and I believe I enjoy the meetings more because of the cameras being on. On the flip side, my favourite kind of pandemic interaction is a one-on-one phone chat while my interlocutor and I both walk— there is something incredibly rejuvenating in the combination of fresh air, exercise, and a voice-only conversation.
Contra the researchers in this study, I’m not sure the prescription is as simple as individual flexibility on the choice of cameras on or off. Rather, I think we need to develop a discipline of thinking carefully about the kind of interaction we’re striving for, and whether cameras will add more than they detract. I think the end result will be cameras used by all attendees for only those meetings where the video adds an important dimension. For most people, I expect that translates into video meetings a few times a week rather than a few times a day, and a corresponding reduction in fatigue.
Remote fatigue beyond virtual meetings
I think it’s a good idea to be more selective when we choose video and to create a discipline of taking short breaks between or during virtual meetings. But I have an additional theory as to why remote work feels much more exhausting, courtesy of a webinar I attended earlier this year. Dr. Emma Cohen3 runs the Social Body Lab at Oxford, and she has published some new research on what she calls the Social Brawn Hypothesis. She finds that cues of social support drive increased performance without increases in perceived effort or fatigue. Stated another way, without social support, you feel you are exerting more effort to equal the level of performance you achieved with benefit of social support.
What really struck me is the definition of social support. It’s not just moral support (what Cohen calls “esteem support”). Rather, it’s specifically the combination of synchrony and the perception of actual resources available from your companions. To access social brawn, it’s not enough to have someone cheering you on — you need to feel like there is someone in lockstep who can jump in and provide tangible help.
I suspect that when we’re working remotely, we lose social brawn from our colleagues. The lack of synchrony in remote work is obvious, but I also think tangible help is less available. It’s still possible for you to tap your remote colleagues for support, but it’s much more difficult. Because you’re working remotely, you and your colleagues don’t have the same “mutual awareness4” of tasks or their context. It takes much more effort to communicate the required context when you’re restricted to leaner media.5 What’s really fascinating to me about Dr. Cohen’s research is that it’s not important whether you actually access that support from your colleagues. Being out of sync and knowing help from others isn’t easily available is a source of fatigue, in and of itself.
I don’t want to oversell this idea. Dr. Cohen’s empirical work is focused on exercise science, not cognitive work, and they see large differences between individuals that require further study. But I do think it suggests that even if we eliminated video meetings completely, remote work would still be more tiring, unless we can solve for social isolation and mutual awareness of goals and contexts.
What I’m Working On
I’ve spent the summer conducting research on institutional adoption of virtual reality (VR) for some specific workplace training contexts. The research itself is focused on a pretty narrow niche, but it’s prompted me to ponder the broader question of whether VR will be mainstream in workplaces in the near future.
I see a lot of signals in the marketplace that make me think the answer is ‘yes.’ The technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, getting both faster and cheaper. That should only accelerate as large organizations like the US Department of Defense6 and Facebook invest massively in both hardware and software. Network effects are important for VR, and I see early adopter organizations make VR headsets standard issue for employees. If those are one-offs, VR might fizzle. But I’m more inclined to think that VR will ultimately break through and become a standard work tool, much like a mobile phone or laptop.
I’ve come to believe that VR’s core value proposition is distraction-free immersion. Undivided attention has become the rarest and most ephemeral commodity in the workplace, and that’s only exacerbated by digitally-dominant remote work. VR can potentially be a mechanism to regain focus in training, in workshops, in meetings, and to overcome the tyranny of notifications and open tabs7. I suspect that VR might eventually supplant video calls, because it facilitates undivided attention and lessens some of the self presentation challenges of video calls. I’m less confident that VR can help with the synchrony and social support challenges, but if the technology improves enough (especially graphics and haptics), maybe VR could deliver mutual awareness and synchrony so we can take advantage of social brawn even when working remotely. And then we just need to figure out how to be disciplined about taking breaks.
Thanks for reading the first issue of the Workomics newsletter. I’d really love feedback on what you found it useful and interesting. Are there other topics you would be like to read about? If you know someone else who might appreciate the newsletter, I’d be grateful if you shared.
Wishing you all zest and ambition for the month ahead.
They were quiet! They sat still! They ate all their food without complaint! Then after they finished eating, they sat quietly reading books while the adults finished. I don’t even know how it happened, but I suspect witchcraft.
It’s called the Design Thinking Zeal and it’s absolutely lovely. If you’re at all interested in human-centred design, you should consider joining.
I’m very grateful for Dr. Cohen’s generosity in follow-up email correspondence with me, which provided a lot of helpful food for thought. An extended version of the webinar I attended is online.
Tsedal Neeley talks about the concepts of mutual awareness and lean vs. rich media as they relate to remote collaboration in her book Remote Work Revolution.
A recent working paper shows that time in meetings decreased 11% during lockdown, while the number of internal emails increased. I think that speaks to the additional work to create context for colleagues.
The Microsoft headsets are actually augmented reality (AR). In AR, virtual elements get overlaid over the real world, whereas in VR, you are fully immersed in an entirely virtual world. I think the technology advances in AR should cross-pollinate to VR, but I don’t think people or organizations will adopt AR and VR in the same ways or for the same reasons.
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