As the pandemic ends, changes to workplace environments such as work from home seem to be here to stay. Employers from all over the world are following the trends of offering remote work options for their employees. Statistics show that 4.7 million people work remotely at least half the time in the United States. According to a survey by Owl Labs, people have been meeting by video calls 50% more since 2020 as a direct result of COVID-19. Video conferencing technology has allowed people to work remotely and stay connected, but can also cause the phenomena known as web conference fatigue.
Have you ever noticed you feel tense and tired after a video conference? Maybe you realize you are canceling or rescheduling video conferences to avoid turning on your video camera? Web conference fatigue can also manifest physical symptoms such as new eye strain, regular headaches, and a continuous feeling of exhaustion. The technology that enables more employees to work from home is valuable, so we need to know how to manage its features that can cause this fatigue. Learning the causes of web conference fatigue and some simple steps to combat it can ensure that working from home using video conferencing is hassle-free.
Video conferencing has been instrumental in helping people stay connected while physically distant and working remotely. With millions of video calls worldwide each day, people are spending hours daily in virtual communication. Since this is a rather new workplace model, there are several reasons why long-term use of virtual communication may cause weariness. Knowing why virtual communication can be tiring, and how to withstand it, will help remote work be more successful.
Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact can be very intense. Usually, in a meeting, people look at the speaker, others present or take notes. During a video conference, everyone is looking at everyone continuously, making more eye contact than normal. Public speaking can cause anxiety, which is often worse when eyes are on you all the time. Studies have shown that eye contact improves connection, the ability to remember faces, and increased likeability. These tools are compromised through virtual communication when your gaze is directed at the camera. In video conferencing, with multiple people, it’s hard to distinguish mutual gaze. This lack of eye contact through virtual communication can cause fatigue, as you have to work harder to establish a connection. Your eyes may also feel strain and tiredness from increased computer use.
Faces in video conferencing may appear large and too close. Our brain interprets faces up close as an intense situation, which can be draining. In face-to-face interaction, we usually aren’t standing so close to people, and are not staring into their faces non-stop. In-person body language and eye contact are different than virtual communication, where we typically only see someone’s face.
Audio perception is another area that differs between virtual and in-person communication. Audio while video conferencing has an inherent millisecond delay, which can negatively affect our interpersonal perceptions and cause distrust. Delays in audio perception may lead you to believe the speaker isn’t concentrating or focused on you and is being unfriendly or rude. Our brain also has to work harder to interpret the words of the speaker when there is a slight delay, which can be exhausting.
Virtual communication requires more cognitive effort than in-person. In-person nonverbal communication cues and gestures are natural, such as a shrug or thumbs-up sign. Nonverbal cues can be powerful and are used to acquire information about others and help affirm words spoken. “Actions speak louder than words” is an important phrase for a reason, as it helps provide reassurance about verbal communication. When communication is virtual people mostly look at the head of the other person. Movement is limited through virtual communication since people have to generally sit in a fixed spot. Movement in communication is natural, and studies have shown that it even helps us perform better cognitively. Virtual communication and work can lead to a more sedentary daily rhythm. Studies have shown that physical activity is associated with about a 40% reduced risk of fatigue.
Video conferencing is often done from ones’ home, so behind them, you may see bookshelves, their television, and couch, etc. This provides lots of visual environmental cues for your brain to process as you take in the speaker and the view behind them increasing your cognitive load.
Most virtual communication platforms show a box with your face in it during the call. Constant self-evaluation is unnatural and can lead to negative emotions. A study by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. It’s taxing and stressful to see yourself so frequently through virtual communication.
Another challenge of working from home through web conferencing that can be tiring is interference from home life. While it might be nice to skip the commute time, your home might not always be as quiet as your office space. Your children playing or needing attention, doorbell ringing or dog barking can all be tiresome distractions during a video conference. Worrying about those noisy situations can lead to web conference anxiety and fatigue.
A survey by Owl Labs found that employees working from home are happier and stay in their jobs longer. Remote employees reported being happy 22% more than workers who only work in an onsite office. Work from home employees reported having less stress, more focus, and better work-life balance. So web conference fatigue can be dealt with, to enable those working from home to have a high quality of life.
Some technical changes can help eradicate web conference fatigue, such as taking the web conferencing tool out of the full-screen option. This will help the other peoples’ faces to not feel so close, and make virtual communication not as intense and tiring. You can also use the “speaker” view to focus on only one person at a time. Seeing one person at a time will be less mentally draining, and it also limits the amount of time you examine the view of yourself.
Using an external keyboard can also increase your personal space bubble between yourself and the faces in the video conference. Some settings allow you to “hide self,” so you are seen by others in the virtual conference, but not yourself. This will help prevent the constant self-evaluation that we experience when we see ourselves.
Another simple technical fix to reduce a heavy cognitive load is to use a plain background, and suggest that people on video conferencing with you do the same. This will help your brain to focus on just the speaker and not the visual background of their home behind them.
There are several ways to get more movement while working from home. Using remote headphones or earbuds will allow you to turn the video to only audio and get up to walk around. This will help you to think and process better, as well as combat a sedentary rhythm. Create a cultural standard for your work that it’s acceptable to turn off the camera for a few minutes. Your peers will be thankful for this break as well. You can also set up an external camera further away from the screen, which can allow you to get up and pace and move. Another way to get more movement is to leave 10-15 minutes between video conferencing. Besides taking a restroom break, leave enough time to take a short walk around your home or even outdoors. Don’t be tempted to use this break time to catch up on emails or phone calls. Truly give yourself a small break from electronics so you can be fresh for your next virtual meeting. Take some deep breaths and do a few stretches before your next video call, and the increased movement can help you feel ready and focused.
To help if you experience eye strain or fatigue, practice the 20-20-20 rule developed by a California optometrist. For every 20 minutes spent looking at the screen, take 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away. This can help relax your eye muscles, and leave you better able to focus on your video conference.
If you can control your web conference meeting schedule, you can make it best suited to you. Maybe you’d prefer to have all of your meetings for the week in a couple days, or spread them out. You can also create “no meeting” blocks in your schedule, so you have a break from virtual communication. Maybe you prefer to schedule morning or evening meetings. Consider blocking off the times of day you are the most productive. Working from home using video conferencing can give you flexibility if you have control of your schedule.
Resist the urge to multitask when in a video conference. It might be tempting to catch up on emails or text messages while “participating” in a video call. But researchers at Stanford University found that people who multitask can’t remember things as well as their more focused peers. We use different parts of our brain for different types of work, and switching between tasks can decrease productivity. The next time you have a video conference, take the time to close programs that might distract you, such as web browsers and email. Put your phone away too, and focus only on the virtual meeting, and you won’t feel as fatigued afterward.
Another way to deal with web conferencing fatigue is to create a separate “work” space that is not the same as where you relax. A bedroom is not an ideal workspace, as that space should be for resting and sleeping. Creating a work-from-home environment that can buffer the noise of your family and pets may be challenging but will help minimize distractions while you work. The fewer distractions you hear and see, the more you will be able to focus on your work and appreciate increased productivity and decreased fatigue.
Sometimes you may realize that a video call isn’t necessary, and you can switch to audio-only, allowing everyone to get a break from the stimulus of video. Sometimes especially at the end of a work day, it might be best to switch to a conference call or even send an email, rather than sit through another tiring video conference. Using email or chat messages for information transfer may also shorten video conferences, saving that time for work that needs to be done or discussed together. Make sure you are using video conferencing when necessary so that all participants get the most out of the interaction. Another key factor to lessen video conferencing fatigue is to set an end time for your meeting, and then stick to it. If the meeting is long, it may also be beneficial to set a 10-minute break time to allow participants to get up and stretch.
Web conference fatigue can affect your health, well-being and ability to work productively. Web conference technology is vital to ensuring people stay connected and plugged in, but can be draining. Making some of the simple changes suggested can ensure that web conferencing is working for you, rather than against you. Figuring out how to adapt to changes in technology in your personal and work lives can lead to an improved quality of life.
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