Not OK, Zoomer: Here's Why You Hate Videoconference Meetings — And What To Do About It

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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “Not OK, Zoomer: Here's Why You Hate Videoconference Meetings — And What To Do About It”

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Expect to see...

And as soon as they go by…they maintain the speed limit for the rest of the day right?

— btrussell

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Anonymous Coward says:

One thing I’m thankful for is my company has defaulted to not using video conferencing. We use screen sharing and teleconferencing extensively but generally not video. Our teleconferencing / screen sharing software has the option for video but almost no one uses it. When someone does turn their camera on, I work to close or hide the video window because I don’t like watching people stare directly at me even though I don’t have a camera on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

After months of audio-only team meetings, my manager suggested maybe we try a video meeting. I can only assume it didn’t go over well, because by the next week, that idea had been dropped. It’s just as well. Those meetings are a waste of time, and distracting enough that I can’t work through them, so I’m usually playing videogames while on mute. But I don’t need them to know that.

Narcissus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Same here. Internally we almost never use video.

I actually start using it more sometimes, specifically with more informal, one on one calls, and with people I like because I haven’t seen them in person for such a long time.

Personally I’m quite okay with this situation. It also allows me to do presentations to customers without going to their office which, in my case, could involve transcontinental flights. I can now do presentation in the morning to India and in the evening to the US. Previously they would’ve expected me to turn up in person. I do notice that doing presentations online is pretty exhausting though, more so than doing them "live" for some reason.

TKnarr (profile) says:

In a lot of cases the simplest solution is to ask whether you need a meeting or not. I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in that are mostly or only data dumps. If you want to give a presentation or deliver data, write it up in an email or make a slideshow and send it out to everyone. Once everyone has the information and has gotten any follow-up they want directly from the originator, then you can see if there’s still a need to have everyone on a call at the same time to debate or ask questions of the group. 9 times out of 10 I find that everyone’s satisfied with what they have and there’s no need for a meeting at all. The whole process is asynchronous so it doesn’t interrupt schedules any more than absolutely necessary, and it creates it’s own audit trail which is really useful for reference.

And it frees up more time for the meetings that really benefit from real-time interaction, which often don’t require the people most likely to schedule meetings.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"In a lot of cases the simplest solution is to ask whether you need a meeting or not."

Yeah, this is always the best question first, whether your meeting is online or offline. Most of us waste meeting time every week in things that would better be handled as an email, phone call, or a one-on-one conversation with an individual rather than involving another 4 or 5 people. Timing is especially important as well – do we need the meeting now or can it be done in the context of a weekly meeting? Once the scope of the meeting is agreed, has the meeting gone in a direction that no longer requires certain attendees to be there, or is it best to leave a couple of key members in the meeting while freeing up other members to get on with their job rather than sit around listening to things that don’t really concern them?

A lot of issues raised above would be less problematic if people followed these guidelines, since people aren’t likely to be as distracted, uncomfortable or unresponsive if they’re not spending half the time they should be productive in meetings that don’t provide any value. Any etiquette or best practices while in a meeting are secondary to whether the meeting should be taking place in its current form.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Most of us waste meeting time every week in things that would better be handled as an email, phone call, or a one-on-one conversation with an individual rather than involving another 4 or 5 people."

Also depends on your corporate culture. Some workplaces I’ve heard of would do far better if no one ever talked to another person at all because it’s easier on everyone to just zen out and slide through the 8 hours worth of soul-destroying purge which makes up the working day than to have to wake up in the middle of it to have conversations with people as dead inside as you are.

I am fortunate indeed mainly to know of this from hearsay and unfortunate peers as my own job is a lot more interesting, and the few times people insist on video in a meeting is when someone mentions their cat is getting all friendly with their laptop and everyone wants to see the cat. ????

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Also depends on your corporate culture"

It does, but it also depends on your role in the company. A support or customer service drone won’t be invited to meetings, but people involved in the design and implementation of systems vital to business revenue will often find themselves doing nothing else.

My personal situation is a little more easy – I’ve never physically met any of the people I work with on a daily basis, so regular daily catchup meetings involving video are quite important. After that we’re generally allowed to get on with work and pair up individually as required or needed with only a few semi-regular other meetings for team or company strategy updates and planning for the next fortnight’s work. As long as tickets are being done, we can deal with any unexpected issues in a timely manner and there’s progress in keeping with regular performance reviews, we don’t have that many meetings overall.

My boss, on the other hand, regularly laments that he has days where he can’t work on anything technical due to the meetings, but such is the burden of being a department manager in a large company…

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

" I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in that are mostly or only data dumps."

I can relate. On the other hand those meetings you do not attend somehow always end up being the ones where it’s brought up that someone has really, really misinterpreted the data they insisted on having, or that what you’ve been told to work on is ending up on the back burner for a while.

"9 times out of 10 I find that everyone’s satisfied with what they have and there’s no need for a meeting at all."

This always makes me nervous because it usually means there’s at least someone who needs a manual walkthrough on the new procedures to be followed or the reason for why we curate the data the way we do – ending up with, six months down the line, some colleague somewhere having persistently put the wrong sort of information in the database.

I’m very much with the OP in that F2F conversation isn’t needed where Audio and a screenshare session will suffice.

Adam J Gill says:

video calls and video conferencing

The post has effectively mentioned the cons of video calls and video conferencing. It has made it easier and convenient to work, but at the same time video meetings does not tell well about what’s going on mind of other person. So I will emphasize more in face-to-face meetings than video conferences, and the remedy for this is screen sharing as it tells more about the work style and the time spend in a task by any individual.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Is this a stupid nerd idea?

If you want to be nice to your fellow zoomer, get an auxiliary camera and position it to the side (or if you want a boss eye view, behind your shoulder, looking at your screen.

It may require too much general empathy to make this a popular idea, but it sounds like the easiest step to help cope with Zoom anxiety.

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