By Lauren Sergy, author of UNMUTE! How to Master Virtual Meetings and Reclaim Your Sanity.
It’s easy for those of us working in virtual organizations to snicker at the idea of “Zoom Fatigue” and virtual meeting burnout. After all, this virtual communication environment is old hat to many of us! We were Zooming long before COVID was even a whisper on the horizon!
Yet even those among us who are at home in virtual environments are complaining of virtual meeting burnout. Zoom fatigue isn’t about whether we are used to operating in an online environment, but rather due to the unique communication demands of online meeting platforms. Even virtual business pros need to deal with these demands if they’re going to keep their heads clear and cortisol levels down.
When it comes to virtual meetings, there is a simple but inconvenient reality: this medium of communication is more mentally taxing than in-person or even telephone communication. It offers significant advantages and presents huge opportunities, but it also takes more out of us.
There are three big issues that exacerbate virtual meeting stress. The first is that we are dealing with a communication environment that takes a huge amount of mental processing power to navigate. Our brains must work around the fact that “normal” signals like eye contact and body language don’t work the way they would in-person. Being used to virtual interactions doesn’t turn off the very primitive parts of our brains that rely on those signals for communication. Strangeness like odd lighting, weird camera angles, and seeing into one another’s spaces pluck at our attention spans.
Second, those attention spans are already shortened by the need to actively manage the technology itself – little tech glitches and delays, monitoring the chat box, screen sharing, and so on. Plus, there’s the fact that this environment is engineered to encourage multitasking. We’re used to having a million windows and tabs open, and actively ignoring that email tab (it’s practically calling out to you) takes a lot of focus and willpower.
Finally, the ease with which we can hop from virtual meeting to virtual meeting leads us to that too-common meeting vice: overscheduling. We pile into meeting to get in ‘face time’ with clients and colleagues, to see one another work and to be seen working. Without the need to physically go to a meeting location or even to switch rooms, we make ourselves too available and create (or accept) far more virtual meetings than we should. It’s not unusual for people to spend hours each day on camera. Some of my clients report spending well over 25 hours a week in virtual meetings!
When you look at virtual meetings in this light, it’s easy to see why they take such a toll. So what’s a person to do? In addition to having fewer meetings (something most people acknowledge as an issue), I’ve found four strategies that individuals and organizations can use to lower the stress created by virtual meetings.
Reduce multitasking and distractions
We all know multitasking is bad for us. But computers and mobile devices are designed for it, and we’ve trained our brains to associated being on the computer with having a million different tasks open at any given time. Ignoring those distractions is hard work and consume a significant amount of our limited attention. Closing every window and tab that isn’t related to the meeting task at hand will make it easier for you to focus and to be more present with those in the meeting and lightening your mental load. This means shutting down every non-essential app, document, and most importantly, browser tabs (don’t worry, you can always find those 17 websites later if you need to). If you find it next to impossible not to dip into your email or social media feeds during meetings, consider getting a website blocking app to help remove temptation.
Reduce on-camera time
Being on camera makes many people feel as though they need to “perform” and not without reason. Giving yourself a break from the camera is a crucial step to reducing virtual meeting stress. Not every meeting has to be virtual, and not every virtual meeting has to be on-camera. Try doing one-on-one calls via telephone (bonus: if you’re on a mobile device, you can move around or even have a “walking” meeting), or establish certain meetings as “cameras off.” Some of my clients have implemented entire “cameras off” days for their internal meetings so that people can take a break from the relentless glare of the webcam. It’s the new casual Friday!
Clearly communicate meeting expectations and etiquette
It’s important that everyone in a meeting shows up in the same way. This signals respect and attention and shows everyone is putting equal effort into the interaction. Unfortunately, breaches in meeting etiquette – such as dress code or cameras on/off is rarely communicated, leading to a lot of unintentional insult. If most people on a Zoom meeting have gone to the effort of putting on a nice shirt and shaving or putting on some makeup, it can feel like a snub when James once again refuses to even turn on his camera.
Make it easier on your team by letting them know what’s expected, such as the dress code (are ironed shirts necessary or is it ok to be in your hoodie and soft pants?) or whether the meeting is cameras on, off, or cameras optional. It only takes a quick note in your meeting invitation and goes a long way to creating better interactions.
Use transition times
We tend to bounce from virtual meeting to virtual meetings with little – if any – break in between. In the days of in-person, those minutes we spent switching meeting rooms, getting up to grab a coffee, or driving to an off-site location gave us breaks where we could mentally gear up for the meeting beforehand or process what happened afterwards. If you’re mostly relying on virtual meetings, it’s important to intentionally build these transition times back into your schedule. I find that 10 or 15 minutes is rarely enough (after all, meetings frequently run over time).
A 30 minute transition time appears as a tidy chunk in your calendar, making it easier to clearly separate your meetings. 30 minutes gives you time to do small follow-up tasks for your previous meeting, such as sending those documents you promised, prepare for the next meeting, and still leaves time for a quick stretch and grab a coffee. Even if your previous meeting does run a couple minutes over, that half-hour transition time gives you an adequate buffer to ensure that taking a much-needed bathroom break doesn’t make you five minutes late for your next meeting.
None of these virtual-meeting-sanity tactics are rocket science, but they do take discipline to implement. Having stress-reduction strategies like transition times, camera-off days, and etiquette notes part of company policy can help get everyone on board and foster better habits across your organization. Flexibility is important, of course – maybe an emergency meeting eats up your transition time, or Lisa needs to leave her camera off because she’s logging into the team meeting while dealing with a sick kid. Judgement and empathy should always be exercised.
Making healthy virtual meeting strategies your modus operandi will help dial back the significant stress created by this otherwise wonderful communication method. Take a moment to identify the three virtual meeting issues creating the most grief for you or your organization, then draft up quick a plan to deal with them both in the short and long term. Your brain will thank you for it!