We’re lucky technology does such a great job of connecting us when working from home, but it’s also wearing us down.Working from home means we’ve had to adjust the way we communicate with co-workers. For many, that means back-to-back meetings with face-to-face screen conversations.

When we converse with more than one other person in real life, we don’t usually stare at all of their faces at once. But this prolonged staring isn’t the only reason we’re crumbling into an exhausted heap at the day’s end. 

Cognitive dissonance

When you’re in the physical presence of another person, you’ve got a lot more to work off than just their words. You feel their presence through body language, smell and touch (not in physical distancing times of course). Those things don’t translate through your computer screen. Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.

Losing conversational cadences

The way we talk to each other is different in virtual conversations too. We try to recreate the incidental conversations we’re used to having at work, but they feel a little more forced than usual. Also, considering we’ve been doing far less than usual, our small talk fodder is dwindling.

Silence is another thing that’s lost in video communication. In real life, silence can be a powerful tool to drive conversations further and is part of their natural rhythm. When there’s silence on the other end of a video chat however, our minds immediately go to an anxious place: ‘Did I say something wrong?’, ‘Is their computer frozen?’, ‘Is my internet down?’. Video or telephone communication delays of even 1.2 seconds cause us to view the other person negatively; we think of them as less attentive.

The absence of meaning

Even though we’re staring at a lot of faces, we’re not able to make meaningful eye contact. Instead, we have to stare at a specific part of our screen to give the impression of eye contact. When we’re making proper eye contact with someone, this person is “attending to your attention while you are attending to theirs. Without overt eye contact and embodied reciprocity, people who videoconference can sometimes feel silently scrutinised. A person may worry: Exactly how does the unblinking camera eye show me to others?

So not only are we having to deal with the subconscious tweaks we’re accommodating in a virtual conversation, we’re also having to manage more overt emotions, like nervousness. Doing that multiple times each day can be extremely emotionally draining.

We’re using it to socialise too

To bring the social aspects of a workplace culture online, many organisations are hosting virtual trivia, happy hours and coffee catch ups. These are great initiatives but they’re also contributing to the problem. Virtual catch ups are also how we’ve been socialising with friends and family. Even though what we’re doing is technically leisure, our brains are still working overtime.

Consider reiterating to employees that these social events are voluntary and make them consistent, so if someone chooses to opt out one week, they know they can join next time around.

Physically there, mentally gone

Research suggests that the more people that are involved in a task, the less responsibility each individual feels to contribute. So when it comes to video chats, if you’re conducting a company-wide meeting, people are more likely to tune out. As someone charged with presenting or hosting, you’ll notice this and will often have to try even harder to maintain engagement than you would in person. 

Getting over video fatigue

So how can we combat this exhaustion? It’s about striking the right balance between keeping people engaged while not overwhelming them.

  • Encourage active listening – Consider drafting a workplace approach to virtual meetings. Part of that could include a guide to active listening. If you’re having meetings where people are jumping in to make their point again, ask people to reiterate what they’ve just heard before saying their own piece so people don’t feel the need to repeat themselves. This will save time and help you to have more productive conversations.
  • Connect the dots – Meeting hosts should keep an ear out for any common gripes expressed in a meeting, say, a few people say they’re not feeling motivated. Leaders can use this information strategically by saying, “I’ve noticed a few of you have said you’re lacking motivation, how can we combat that?”
  • Normalise a wandering mind – After your sixth Zoom meeting for the day, it’s natural that your focus isn’t as sharp. It should be okay for people who are tuning back in to say, “I’m sorry, I lost track of the conversation for a moment. Can someone help me understand what we’re focusing on?” Others on the call will likely breathe a silent sigh of relief as they’ve likely trailed off too.

Another thing employers can do is encourage staff to have a break between each meeting and the next task on their to-do list. Having a mental buffer likes this helps the brain to reset.

When we first went into lockdown it seemed people favoured the face-to-face option of a video call as they grappled with feeling severed from the workplace. However, as we’ve been doing it for many weeks, giving people the option to turn their cameras off is a good way to give them a break from hyper-stimulating conversations.

We can’t blame all our fatigue on video calls. A lot of it boils down to the stress and emotional load we’re carrying as we work and live through a pandemic. To book an appointment to speak with an EAP Assist counsellor go to: https://eapassist.com.au/booking-form/