Recently, at my second video meeting of the day, some of the team was sharing their personalized backgrounds. There was a tailgating scene outside of Penn State’s stadium and a Cape May, New Jersey sunset. Earlier someone had presented themselves before a wall of books – was it real? – and one meeting-goer even made a backdrop of the ubiquitous COVID-19 virus, magnified and spiky, the villain that quarantined us to the land of virtual meetings in the first place.
One of my coworkers piped in: “My background is a bedroom with a ceiling fan.”
Is it any wonder that, after many weeks, we might be entering a period of video meeting fatigue? It’s far from the worst problem facing the world, but as virtual meetings become routine, it’s a good time to get some insight from experts in communication and human behavior.
A multi-participant video call “is like you're watching television and television is watching you,” business school associate professor Gianpiero Petriglieri recently told the BBC.
During a video meeting, we can see our colleagues, but we can’t make direct eye contact. We can’t hear something subtle like the intake of breath that signals someone is about to speak, so we might trip over one another’s sentences. The trick is to change our expectations, says Dr. Marissa L. Shuffler, an Industrial/Organizational Psychology Associate Professor at Clemson University.
“When we expect a video conference to feel just like a face-to-face team meeting, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment,” she said. “The technical glitches, delays in communications and unexpected interruptions or disconnections can all leave us feeling frustrated over not only our inability to get our work done, but also frustrated in the lack of interpersonal connection we may need – especially during the unpredictable environment we are currently facing during this pandemic.”
Understanding a little about the science of teamwork and virtual teams can help us be more effective and truly connected, Shuffler said. Here’s what she recommends:
1. Pause to check in and chat. Research shows participants in video conferences tend to dive right into the subject matter, Shuffler said. Instead of getting straight to business, take a moment to see how the other participants are doing.
“What we really need first is a chance to connect socially, to build trust and better understand each other,” she said.
Skipping that step can lead to depersonalization, conflict and mental exhaustion, Shuffler said.
A little (appropriate) humor can help, too. Jeff Ball, CSL Behring’s Global Head of Network Strategy & Operational Excellence, recently led a huge video call from home: 300 people on Microsoft Teams Live. He had no way of knowing how this large audience was reacting to his presentation. He joked to participants that his only feedback was the snoring dog at his feet.
“Hopefully,” Ball said, “you’ll find it much more interesting than her.”
2. Know when you need a video meeting and when you don’t. The surge in video conferences happened because people, understandably, were trying to compensate for lost face time. But now that we’ve had many weeks of meetings, people can make more informed decisions about how to accomplish team tasks, Shuffler said. Match the communication tools and resources with the work that must be done, she advised. Note when a video meeting helps accomplish the job or slows it down unnecessarily.
“It is much less frustrating to work virtually when you are using the tools that will actually help you get the task done, instead of adding to your burden.”
3. Respect different personality types and temperaments. Know that everyone’s experience with video calling will be different. Extroverts might love having the camera on all day; introverts, not so much, Shuffler said.
“I’ve had colleagues ask to switch to phone calls for certain meetings to help alleviate their video fatigue, and I think this is really important to be open to this as a leader and colleague,” she said.
Stephanie Read, a CSL Behring Vice President for Strategy and Business Development, noted some video meeting fatigue setting in in recent weeks.
“For those who are more ‘introverted,’ too many video conferences could be asking a lot,” she said.
Be sensitive to these differences and let people set real-time boundaries around “camera on” versus “camera off,” Read suggested.
4. Whenever possible, leave space between video calls. Schedule in some buffer time because you really need it, Shuffler said.
“Don’t book back-to-back meetings, especially ones that require you to be ‘on’ a lot, such as presenting or leading the meeting. You will feel much more exhausted mentally and emotionally if you don’t give yourself some breaks.”
5. Remember that video meet-ups can be fun. The boom in video meeting came at an extremely stressful time, but it’s showing us the potential of video calls just for fun and catching up, Shuffler said. It can give us a boost to see friends we enjoy and just hang out online.
“It has been a great reminder that we should keep doing this – having Zoom catch up time where we can see each other – even once this pandemic is past us,” Shuffler said. “We feel re-energized by this type of social interaction, so using technology to socially connect for fun is just as important as using it for work.”