Zoom fatigue. Career crisis. Burnout. Anxiety. A lot of descriptors surround the past two years of our pandemic reality and they’re all applicable not just personally but professionally. So much has been written about our personal struggles, the individual and collective mental health crises, but there’s also a lot happening at work. And some of it is affecting subtle but mounting changes that take a negative toll.
The greatest reality shift has been working from home, for those of us in occupations able to be translated in that way, with the attendant separation from office routine and the camaraderie of coworkers. The basic pros and cons of this are easy to list: pro, shorter commute; con, parents home schooling; pro, sweatpants are comfortable; con, isolation, etc. But what’s happening underneath the more obvious examples of change, to things like communication and collaboration? The stressors we experienced with jobs and work in the Before Times are still there except, they’re now exacerbated by personal worry and remote work. Workplaces have filled the watercooler and lunchroom gaps by introducing ever-increasing amounts of online meetings, open forums, chat apps, and the unavoidable and seemingly endless video calls. While technology has stepped up to provide connectivity in a mighty way, technology still cannot substitute for human connection and what we’ve lost are the graces that grow between humans who exist in tangible proximity to one another.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, identified four main consequences of prolonged video contact in the first peer-reviewed article on the subject in 2021. Excessive amounts of up-close eye contact, looking at yourself during conversations, limited mobility, and a higher cognitive load are the four key things he identified. We don’t maintain direct eye-to-eye contact consistently offline because it’s a very intense experience. Seeing ourselves during every meeting and conversation lends us to be more critical and stressed. Needing to be positioned in front of the camera reduces our mobility, our natural tendency to walk and talk on the phone or stroll hallways in person. And removing the subtle cues of body language and small gestures from our interactions means we have more cognitive work to do in interpreting speakers correctly. All of this leads to exhaustion, increased stress, and, quite naturally, irritability. What falls by the wayside, then, aside from our own mental and physical well-being, is the ability to interact with grace and openness. We are already sick of video conferencing before we get in the meeting, we’re coming in with an edge. Maybe we’re coming directly from another video chat and haven’t had time to digitally decompress. Add to that the inability to meet each other casually, easily, at the coffee machine or exiting the building for lunch in the fresh air, and we have lost the natural connectivity and light interaction that make coworking refreshing.
The pandemic isn’t over, however, despite how badly we want it to be and every office is taking individualized approaches to a return to centralized hubs. Caution is warranted and it can’t be overlooked that working from home has greatly benefitted some folks who have found a better rhythm or more support for disabilities in this way. But we do all need to still collaborate pleasantly, to find support and warmth in each other’s company and shared work, and we need to safeguard our own mental health as well. So what can be done to restore communication and calm?
Jennifer Moss, Harvard Business Review contributor and author of the book The Burnout Epidemic, has specific advice on avoiding burnout which applies to this very issue as well. In an appearance on Lindsay Recknell’s podcast ‘Mental Health in Minutes’ (Season 3 Episode 5 “Creating Sustainable Practices for Employee Wellness”), Jennifer says “And what I’ve come to understand, and I have one chapter in the book that’s all about empathetic leadership… and I actually feel like that is the most critical super skill that the future of work is going to require. Because it’s all about active listening. It’s about a nuanced, personalized approach to motivation.” She explains that we need fewer video conferencing meetings focused solely on work with more time for digital detox between them, but also, seemingly contradictorily, one additional meeting added in. This added meeting is about smaller team sizes and asking three main questions: “One should be How are you? People are going to lie and say they’re fine. So you have to say, you know, Are you really fine? And you dig deeper by saying name a high, name a low for this week, everyone goes around the horn.” And that’s all the meeting is about. A half hour, forty minutes at the most. For people to really talk and really be heard.
Marie-Josée Lareau, Founder and President of InnoveLab out of Montreal, echoes this sentiment in her appearance on Dr. Laura Hambley-Lovett’s podcast ‘Where Work Meets Life’ (Episode 29 “[Part I] Innovating From a Distance: Do we need to be together to create?”). She says, of employees, “…it's important to give them a space, to give them the precious gift of our real attention, to really listen to them for real, especially if we take the time to bring them together and to run a brainstorm or do something special.” She details ways in which true listening, without multitasking or fidgeting, make the human connection more tangible in the online space. Her insights are put into practice in organizations where she implements layers of training for employees and managers to assist in creating those safe spaces for comfort and sharing. Putting the humanity and grace, the ability to be seen and heard, back into the online space goes a long way towards lessening stress and improving communication. Not more meetings, but more thoughtful ones. And meetings that aren’t always about productivity but are about the people who drive that productivity.
Back to Professor Bailenson and his article, then, for the final very practical steps on how to lessen the physical fatigue. Turn off your own view of yourself: don’t watch yourself listen or speak. Keep your own self-view window on just long enough to ensure you’re properly framed and lit and then close it. And to that end, when focused on the speaker, make that speaker’s window smaller and sit back from the screen to increase the sense of a personal bubble. In lengthy meetings, if possible, give yourself an “audio only” break every so often. Managers, group leaders, bosses, executives: set the pace with fewer meetings and introducing that one meeting focused solely on people, on the check-in, and on the listening. Don’t tune out. Be present. Engage and encourage your teams to engage.
The amount of video chat in our lives these days can be extremely exhausting. But there are ways to break that down. Begin each meeting with a wellness focus. Play music while everyone gathers in the meeting room. Model enjoyment or engagement for others by dancing or asking questions about the song. Open sessions with a heartfelt greeting to everyone personally and then a round robin of a personal question or two: What is one thing that brought you joy this weekend? or What is one struggle you need us to hear you on today? or What’s your favorite snack? These non work-related connections do wonders to open and connect us all. Give people space to connect and be themselves. Let them feel seen and heard, and understand that we're all stressed.
Zoom fatigue, increased stress, communication breakdown, collective mental health concerns, irritability, these are all real. But they don’t need to guide the way work is done. By acknowledging that these new issues are part of our reality, we can find better ways of working with our technological tools. Connection and collaboration in very human ways are still possible. We simply need to start using better hygiene when it comes to all our video conferencing. Fewer meetings, more quality attention, and some practical physical steps to lessen the real exhaustion. Innovation is possible remotely, so let’s adopt these new ways to do it with increased awareness and support.
At DevFacto, we're committed to reviewing the ways in which we work and communicate and exploring how others have found success as well. Looking for ways we can adjust and improve is one of the ways we deliver better work for our clients, but it's also an important piece behind how we improve the lives of our employees. If you'd like to come work with a group of people that care about improving how their work gets done, check out our current listings and apply!
David Cronin is our founder and CEO based in Canada. He found his passion early in life, writing code back in the 80’s and has been working in the software industry since 1994. He co-founded DevFacto, a consulting firm that specializes in building software that humans love to use. David works with our teams across the country to ensure they’re providing innovative solutions to customers around the world.
Elijah Cardinal-Whitford is a Freelance Illustrator working under the pseudonym Kumobleu. Based in Montreal, QC. You'll find him drawing inspiration from the everyday or pointing out every dog he sees while out and about.
For this piece, he writes "The importance of connecting with one another was the main focus of this piece for me and the creation of a space where one can open up and express oneself."