How to deal with ‘Zoom-call fatigue’

Tips on how to conduct successful virtual meetings, without hampering productivity, even while respecting the personal space of the participants

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Employees, who earlier complained of longer meetings in the conference rooms of offices, now whine about longer zoom calls or conference calls hampering their productivity to the core.

Nuances of agility

“In the pre-COVID world we have heard from executives that their being part of innumerable meetings leaves them with no productive time. Now when I talk to colleagues across industries, I find that what was earlier a smaller demon has now turned into a giant one,” says Sunil Singh, CHRO, Cadila.

‘Zoom fatigue’ is the new addition to the corporate lexicon in the last three months of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a condition suffered by employees working from home, who are having to spend their entire work day glued to the virtual screen.

On a video call, the only way people can show they are paying attention is by looking at the camera. However, in real life, how often do they have to stand within three feet of their colleagues and stare at their faces? Probably never. This is because, having to engage in a ‘constant gaze’ makes us uncomfortable — and tired.

Amit Das, director-HR & CHRO, Bennett Coleman (Times of India Group) claims, “Some recent surveys indicate that while the prolonged conference calls, meetings and webinars on the virtual medium provide employees a sense of overwork at the end of the day, in reality, however, their productivity has dropped upto 25 per cent.”

“The degree of attention and focus required in a zoom call to absorb, assimilate and process information in our brain, is far higher than sitting in an office and having a face-to-face meeting. Since our brain needs to work harder to process the non-verbal cues emanating from facial expressions and body language, it doesn’t allow peripheral vision to glance through the window or look around,” he adds.

Chandrashekhar Mukherjee, CHRO, Magic Bus India Foundation, clearly explains, “Zoom / video or conference calls are not the issue per se. The meeting discipline, timing, participation / involvement and infrastructure are the pain points. The issue actually is with untimely and elongated calls; employees feel threatened by the dearth of privacy with the onset of agile work environments at home.”

Singh asserts that online meetings increase the cognitive load upon people, because several features associated with them take up a lot of conscious capacity, such as:

1. There is no space constraint, unlike in a physical meeting room. Therefore, the invitee lists of meetings have increased by 100 -200 per cent. Participants are accepting more than one meeting invites at the same time, and thereby, reducing their effective contributions to any of those meetings.

2. Number of side discussions has increased many-fold. This has only led to more meetings, resulting in zero outcomes.

3. With more and more elongated meetings and untimely calls, the number of employees coming unprepared to meetings has also increased.

4. In many organisations, technical glitches are making these meetings a joke, killing a lot of productive time. These glitches are emerging as the devices — desktops, laptops, projectors — fail to have compatible configurations.

5. Last but not the least, we are seeing a considerable amount of personal time being eaten away as hosts organising the meetings conduct them according to their own whims and fancies.

The constant gazing at the screen, heightened self-awareness and attempt to scan multiple visual backgrounds of a number of participants on such zoom calls, leads to tiredness and exhaustion. Additionally, lack of proper ergonomically-designed infrastructure and household distractions, tend to enhance both physical and mental fatigue after prolonged zoom calls throughout the day.

The Way out

Now, if work from home is to be the new working module, then there has to certain revamps in the work-from-home policies as well. We can afford to substitute unproductive measures of the office with a work-from-home module.

Here is what the HR practitioners suggest:

1. Mindset

Use WFH as an opportunity to get rid of the malaise of meetings, which was already existent, even before the new normal. As we transition to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and so on, it is important to make a commitment to do the following:

a) Cut down meetings by two-thirds.

b) Close meetings on time.

c) Ensure there are less attendees in the new environment as compared to office conference rooms, for effective virtual meetings.

2. Technology and awareness

Although we have all entered into the work-from-home model in a sudden and unplanned manner, it doesn’t eradicate the need to perform the following actions:

a) Review all IT infrastructure and check their compatibility with diverse platforms. Invest in standardisation. This will pay in future as it’s a non-reversible change.

b) Educate and train the employees on meeting etiquettes, especially on how virtual interactions are different from physical ones.

3. Respect for personal space

Leaders and individuals should be aware of the concept of personal time and space. They should know that they have no business intruding into their employees’ personal space and that even if they are working from home, employees still need monthly offs.

4. Process

Any changes, when they are new, require some processes to start with. Define some simple do’s and don’ts of virtual meetings. Lay down some basic guidelines to start with, before virtual meetings fully become the new normal, such as:

• More common breaks / intervals so that the employees can do some stretching exercising to de-stress / relax their muscles

• Common working hours for all— and this needs to be sacrosanct— unless there is an emergency

• Organisational support in terms of providing appropriate infrastructure at home

“At times, our urgency to manage multiple tasks while on a zoom call, creates more stress due to improper time management. Hence, we need to adopt ‘serial tasking’ to reduce the resultant fatigue,” states Das.

Just like social distancing, improving the quality of a video call experience requires collective effort. As many of us will not be going back the office for a long time, we must all work to reduce Zoom fatigue and make these calls less of a strain for everyone.

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