Let’s bring back old school phone calls in the workplace to counter zoom fatigue

It’s been more than a year now since we’ve all been living the pandemic life. For me, that’s meant working from home, and while I’m grateful to work in a field that easily translates to remote work, like many people, I am experiencing Zoom fatigue.

After days of back-to-back Zoom meetings, I am finding myself with eye strain and headaches and feeling unusually exhausted. I told my family I think the Zoom video calls are the source of this exhaustion.

After all, when I worked in the office, I didn’t have hour-long conversations staring, very closely, at other people’s faces. If I was in a meeting, there was usually a conference table between me and the others – or at least some level or personal space. And, I wouldn’t maintain deep eye contact throughout the meeting as I’d look at different people, down at my notes or elsewhere. When I had a question for someone who sat down the hall, I’d either send them a quick chat message or buzz their phone extension and have a conversation without seeing them at all. Maybe, I’d pop into their office or doorway to ask a question, but, again, I stood at a distance. Their faces were not inches from mine, enlarged by a video screen. And, most client calls and team updates were likewise done over the phone without video.

I’d also add that I tend to pace and move around when I’m talking on the phone, something I cannot do when tethered to a video call. So, now in this era of endless Zoom calls, I end up spending the day unmoving, staring at close-ups of other people’s faces all day. And, it’s draining the life out of me.

More and more I find myself longing for a simple, normal phone call without another face staring back at me. And, it seems I’m not alone.

The  Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), recently examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. Their ultimate conclusion was “Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I think, as we strive to keep the connections that come from working in-person together, we may be over-compensating with excessive uses of video conferencing that results in exhaustion instead of collaboration.

So, I plan to initiate a return to normal, low-tech, Alexander Graham Bell-style phone calls with my team. Unless we need to share a screen and view the same documents, I’m going to encourage my team to pick up the phone for an old-school smile and dial conversation.

In the meantime, here’s what the folks at Stanford’s VHIL have to say on the subject, including some recommended solutions to combat Zoom fatigue:

Reasons why video conferencing is exhausting:

Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.

  • Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens is unnatural. In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased.
  • Solution: Until the platforms change their interface, Bailenson recommends taking Zoom out of the full-screen option and reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor to minimize face size, and to use an external keyboard to allow an increase in the personal space bubble between oneself and the grid.

Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.

  • In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. But with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural.
  • Solution: “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said. He recommends people think more about the room they’re videoconferencing in, where the camera is positioned and whether things like an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen will allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. And of course, turning one’s video off periodically during meetings is a good ground rule to set for groups, just to give oneself a brief nonverbal rest.

The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.

  • Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.
  • In effect, Bailenson said, humans have taken one of the most natural things in the world – an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought: “You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
  • Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio only” break. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” Bailenson said, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

Let me know what you think. Are you experiencing Video fatigue? Do you miss regular old-fashioned phone calls? Do you have any tricks not mentioned above to work around the age of video conferencing? I’d sure love to know!

2 comments

  1. Amen sister! I get drained from video calls and 9 times out of 10 there was no reason to use video anyway!

  2. I never thought I’d see the day when I miss emails. I’d rather have to read thru a dozen emails than sit on another zoom call. And what’s with the extreme close ups on zoom?! Nobody wants to see your nose hairs, Carl. Back it up!

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