This is the blog version of an article on the theme of online meetings and why they are so exhausting that I wrote for PC Pro early in the pandemic. Some of it is well understood, superseded or out of date now, however people continue to express interest in the article, which is not otherwise available online. Hence I am adding it to this blog in two parts. In part 2 I will offer thoughts on ways to deal with it.
Microsoft Teams has seen a spectacular rise in usage. In the early days of COVID, when we found ourselves working from home in many cases, , usage rose from 44 million daily users in March 2020 to 75 million daily active users in April, a 70% increase. In June, Microsoft revealed that total video calls in Teams in grew by over 1,000%in March 2020 in India, despite limited access to devices or stable internet in many parts of the country. The other platforms, including Zoom (of course), Skype, FaceTime (if you are an Apple only user) among others have certainly seen similar upswing. I’m quite sure more up-to-date data will show the upswing continuing apace. Meanwhile everyone else is getting in on the act with WhatsApp, Messenger, Slack, Discord et al., promoting their video capabilities. The bottom line is that hundreds of millions of people are now spending many hours per day in online calls, both business and personal.
“We saw more than 200 million meeting participants in a single day this month, generating more than 4.1 billion meeting minutes.” Satya Nadella
With this level of intensity, we are beginning to see patterns and symptoms emerging. I have certainly observed some new behaviours whilst online and this has been a subject of discussion within the Microsoft 365 community. The observations and hypotheses have lacked much rigour and supporting research until today. I’d do more but sadly lack a research grant to allow rigorous pursuit, so it’s nice that Microsoft have done much of the work for me.
With this level of intensity, we are beginning to see patterns and symptoms emerging.
My head hurts
Some kinds of meeting are clearly more exhausting than others. In important meetings one has to be consistently on top form, which includes reading the situation; judging how, when and with whom to interact; thinking on your feet, and more. All these place a mental strain on people. The energy and adrenaline that carries you through some meetings quickly dissipates with the meeting dénouement, leaving us drained.
You would think that online meetings would, therefore, be rather more relaxed affairs. You would be wrong. Over the lockdown months I have heard people comment on how tiring back-to-back online meetings are. I’ve seen people phase out during calls and, in some cases, never really get their mojo back again. I began wondering how high the cognitive load on people is during online meetings, speculating that it seems markedly higher than the physical equivalent.
“After a week of shelter-in-place, I was just flabbergasted by how intense and exhausting it was,”
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, Stanford University
Reading the Microsoft research, I have been able to confirm my hypothesis; online cognitive load is a real thing.
The Microsoft study corroborated that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration. Specifically, brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher when collaborating remotely than in-person. Another study confirmed that the high levels of sustained concentration needed lead to fatigue after about 30-40 minutes of meetings. In a day filled with such video meetings, stress is measurable about two hours into the day.
This begs the ‘why’ question. Here’s what I think:
The visual cortex is the largest system in the human brain. We respond to and process visual data better than any other type of data; the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Recent research found we can extract meaning from images in less than 20 milliseconds, which is down at the refresh rate of a decent monitor.
We are really good at visual processing, yet seeing people onscreen is unnatural and inconsistent.
Our poor, overtaxed brains have to process the discontinuity of seeing differing backgrounds from person to person, dealing with oddly sized heads (randomly big and small depending on camera and distance) and with differing image quality. Sensory input is limited to 2D visual and audio only. And then there is a subtle and disturbing set of problems associated with latency, overlap and out of sequence responses to stimuli.
The delay in feedback to each other, even though only a few tens of milliseconds, play havoc with our learned social interactions. There are all kinds of subtle cues – head nods, facial cues, body language – that we use to show that we have an issue, or we want to speak, or that we agree or don’t agree. It’s like being in a room full of socially inept colleagues who don’t know when to shut up or interject. It’s mentally exhausting and managing the frustration adds to that.
A window on the soul
Scientists began studying problems with eye contact – or gaze misalignment – in the 1960s. It’s an issue which is endemic with video calls; we look at people on screen, but the web cam that people see us via is mounted above the screen, which usually means at forehead height (if you are using a desktop monitor) but on a laptop you end up talking to chins and nostrils! It might only be a matter of a few centimetres, but nevertheless, humans are remarkable at social interaction and our conditioned brains tell us that our colleagues are not paying attention since their eyes seem elsewhere.
Similarly, our brains are aware of others based on their locations and in video meetings it is harder for the brain to notice eye contact irregularities.
Get out of my personal space
Size matters! Camera type, desk and seating position plus and the unnatural effects of wide angle lenses (which accentuate depth effects) not only lead to marked differences in perceived size of people but can also trigger ‘personal space’ responses. A head that appears large in your field of vision is associated with someone being up close, decidedly within your personal space. Millions of years of evolution have taught our reptilian brains that when things are that close it’s either a threat (fight or flight response) or something you get during courting and sex. In the ‘normal’ world, HR usually get involved at this point!
Our auditory cortex is also highly developed, as such, differences in audio clarity and perceived volume place a further strain on us during meetings. Visual challenges might be exhausting, but audio issues are actually more disruptive and we seem better at ignoring poor visual quality than bad audio. In cases where there are large volume differences between attendees it becomes extremely taxing and actively uncomfortable. Meanwhile the effects of hearing your own speech as an echo (Delayed Auditory Feedback) is so profound that it has been weaponised (as have other acoustic effects).
Crikey! We should abandon video meetings!
Having experienced many decades of early mornings, long car, train and plane journeys and late nights (often at hotels) I can say with some confidence that video meetings are mostly better than the alternatives, despite all this.
However Zoom Fatigue is a real thing. It might not be worse than travel, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the physical, psychological and emotional impacts it has. Work from Home also deprives us of many opportunities for human interaction and community, potentially degrading our sense of belonging (only slight less important than safety and security according to Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs).
Anything we can do to mitigate the issues above has got to be worth a look, given how much time we spend in these kinds of meeting meetings. I’ll address that in a future blog.
If you want to read the online version of the original PC Pro article, you can find it here.