from the fighting-fatigue dept
With much of the world in various states of lockdown, the videoconference meeting has become a routine part of many people’s day, and a hated one. A fascinating paper by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, suggests that there are specific problems with videoconference meetings that have led to what has been called “Zoom fatigue”, although the issues are not limited to that platform. Bailenson believes this is caused by “nonverbal overload”, present in at least four different forms. The first involves eye gaze at a close distance:
On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships — such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up — has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.
There are two aspects here. One is the size of the face on the screen, and the other is the amount of time a person is seeing a front-on view of another person’s face with eye contact. Bailenson points out that in another setting where there is a similar problem — an elevator — people typically look down or avert their glance in order to minimize eye contact with others. That’s not so easy with videoconferencing, where looking away suggests lack of attention or loss of interest. Another problem with Zoom and other platforms is that people need to send extra nonverbal cues:
Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behavior and to send cues to others that are intentionally generated. Examples include centering oneself in the camera’s field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to signal agreement, or looking directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) to try and make direct eye contact when speaking.
According to Bailenson, research shows people speak 15% louder on videoconference calls compared to face-to-face interaction. Over a day, this extra effort mounts up. Also problematic is that it’s hard to read people’s head and eye movements — important for in-person communication — in a video call. Often they are looking at something that has popped up on their screen, or to the side, and it may be unclear whether the movement is a nonverbal signal about the conversation that is taking place. Another oddity of Zoom meetings is that participants generally see themselves for hours on end — an unnatural and unnerving experience:
Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but in essence this is what happens on Zoom calls. Even though one can change the settings to “hide self view,” the default is that we see our own real-time camera feed, and we stare at ourselves throughout hours of meetings per day.
Finally, Bailenson notes that the design of cameras used for videoconferencing means that people tend to remain within a fairly tight physical space (the camera’s “frustrum”):
because many Zoom calls are done via computer, people tend to stay close enough to reach the keyboard, which typically means their faces are between a half-meter and a meter away from the camera (assuming the camera is embedded in the laptop or on top of the monitor). Even in situations where one is not tied to the keyboard, the cultural norms are to stay centered within the camera’s view frustrum and to keep one’s face large enough for others to see. In essence users are stuck in a very small physical cone, and most of the time this equates to sitting down and staring straight ahead.
That’s sub-optimal, because in face-to-face meetings, people move around: “they pace, stand up, stretch, doodle on a notepad, get up to use a chalkboard, even walk over to the water cooler to refill their glass”, as Bailenson writes. That’s important because studies show that movements help create good meetings. The narrow physical cone that most people inhabit during videoconferences is not just tiring, but reduces efficiency.
The good news is that once you analyze what the problems are with Zoom and other platforms, it’s quite straightforward to tweak the software to deal with them:
For example, the default setting should be hiding the self-window instead of showing it, or at least hiding it automatically after a few seconds once users know they are framed properly. Likewise, there can simply be a limit to how large Zoom displays any given head; this problem is simple technologically given they have already figured out how to detect the outline of the head with the virtual background feature.
Other problems can be solved by changing the hardware and office culture. For example, using an external webcam and external keyboard allows more flexibility and control over various seating arrangements. It might help to make audio-only Zoom meetings the default, or to use the old-fashioned telephone as an alternative to wall-to-wall videoconferencing. Exploring these changes is particularly important since it seems likely that working from home will remain an option or perhaps a requirement for many people, even after the current pandemic is brought under control. Now would be a good time to fight the fatigue it so often engenders.