Video Conference Fatigue and a Better Way

on June 18, 2020

As we are several months into remote working, I think it is safe to assume that humans are not meant to sit through 4-5 hours of video meetings in the same way they are not meant to sit in 4-5 hours of meetings all day every day.

From early on, when COVID-19 forced economic shutdowns and many industries forced to rush into a work from home/work remote situation, we have been tracking the process. We did some research, and the chart below shows how rapidly the increase in video meetings as a normal day to day activity rose.

As we had conversations with employees at various companies of different sizes and in different industries, it has been fascinating to see the early positivity in video meetings by many we talked with. Fast forward now two months into the situation, and the sentiment as changed in several specific ways.

Early on, and in particular, as our social interactions became limited, video seemed to be a welcome way to interact with colleagues. Companies rushed to replace the day to day in-person interactions with video calls, and that was a primary reason for the spike in video meetings being reported by Zoom, Microsoft with Teams, and Google with Meet. But after about a month, video call fatigue set in, and we see it in various forms now today.

In April, I wrote about this for subscribers, and linked to this article and highlighted this paragraph.

‘One reason may be that most video calling platforms will include the user’s camera view on the call screen. It is likely that this is enhancing our self-awareness to a greater level than usual and therefore resulting in us making additional self-presentation efforts than in face-to-face interactions in the real world.

‘Another explanation for fatigue may simply be from technical restrictions and our inability to be able to fully use the usual array of social cues and non-verbal communication. Within video calls, the bandwidth of social cues is much narrower, and we have to pay additional attention to others’ behavior to enable us to monitor social interactions effectively. These extra attentional efforts can become tiring over time.

Nilay Patel from The Verge tweeted this yesterday, which is a sentiment I have heard from dozens of friends and colleagues already who want to go back to audio calls and not a video for 1:1 interactions or with people you are familiar with.

I noticed this early on as well in my own experiences where being on video, where someone was watching you, took another level of focus and energy as an element of participation. I like to multitask, stand, walk around to think, and more, and that is very hard to do when sitting looking present in front of a camera.

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had with friends who simply find it refreshing to talk audio-only rather than Zoom. Nilay’s point was well-received on Twitter, with many commenters agreeing with him.

There is a time for video meetings, and there is a time for audio calls, and the refinement in criteria is what is being worked out right now. However, as a result of this exercise, I firmly believe those refinements in the process will trickle down to impact in-person meetings once people are allowed to go back to the office, and some sense of in-person work returns to normalcy. Not every meeting needs to be a physical meeting. Physical meetings also require a great deal of energy and, limited them to the absolute necessity will have a positive impact on everyone’s productivity.

That being said, if I’m directionally correct in this shift, then it means we need much more innovation in the software, tools, services, and even hardware, to make remote collaboration even better than if it was done in person or over a video call. This is the challenge but also the opportunity to innovate on many levels.

For me, this whole experience has brought to light new understandings of what the failures are of real-time remote collaboration as well as the failures and challenges of in-person meetings. While I know the effectiveness of in-person meetings and subsequent best practices have been studied, I still think there is more digital solutions have to offer that can marry the best of both worlds. There is no perfect solution, and there may never be, but I firmly believe there is an opportunity to innovate here. Those who do may end up gaining a stronghold on digital transformation and the new era of collaboration that sits ahead of us.

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