Report on an interesting article on Zoom Fatigue
The now popular “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue” by Jeremy N. Bailenson [Department of Communication, Stanford University], proposed a series of theoretical assertions based on past experimental work. Many outlets reported on this article given the esteemed source.
Unfortunately, as an actual practitioner of online events for over a decade, I reacted to this article with a mixture of amusement and frustration. Both the premises and the conclusions lack the real-world experience of solving these problems in the field. The most heavily reported suggestions are actually damaging and should not be considered as valid solutions.
A “ZEF Scale” or “Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale” was also introduced in a separate study. I will not address this document as the acute and endemic confirmation bias renders that research useless as it pertains to a meaningful conversation about this subject.
Online meetings, for many, would be like taking someone from a tropical island and transporting them onto the slopes of a ski resort. These new inhabitants would complain about being cold, wet, and falling all the time. Experienced skiers would explain that this can be quite fun — with the right tools and training. But many would yearn for the warm waters of the past unless they embrace the new normal and acquired the skills that they need to succeed. They must get the right clothing, learn how to ski, and understand that while they can’t do the same things that they did at the beach — there are many fun things to do in the snow.
Online conferencing is similar. Like everything in life worth doing, it requires new skills and a few tools. Acquiring these new skills and tools drastically changes the participant’s view of virtual meetings. This change in attitude often happens rapidly and is not due to any change to Zoom’s design or taking more breaks. Instead, it is driven from feeling more confident, looking better and sounding better. When a person has these skills, they stand head and shoulders over everyone else in the meeting. When everyone in a meeting has these skills, it transforms the conversation.
I am writing this series of articles because online synchronous video provides a unique opportunity to connect the world and unleash an exponential growth in knowledge transfer. We are approaching a “Gutenberg Moment” that could fundamentally change the very nature of how we interact with each other, how we learn, and how we work. It could also create a great chasm between those who get onboard and those that are left behind.
The risk of resistance is not to Zoom or the virtual conferencing industry. Interaction over video is here to stay. The die has been set at this point. The real risk is to people who do not acquire the proper skills to compete in this new arena and thus fall further behind. By following poor advice, they will be passed up on many levels because, while they think they are “dressing for success”, no one told them that their online video presence is the new suit and tie.
With a background at Industrial Light and Magic, I began building digital media communities 20 years ago. In the course of this journey, I managed over 2000 virtual events for companies like Google, Facebook, Salesforce and many others. Much of this work ranged from average users to heads of state, A-level artists, and global influencers. Supporting these productions, my team prepared over 6000 active participants, built custom connection kits, designed virtual event studios and worked directly with the platform engineering teams. I have dedicated most of the last decade to managing synchronous video connections like Zoom.
In addition to running online events, I preside over a daily meeting of hundreds of online media and virtual event professionals called “Office Hours”. We discuss the exact issues covered in the Stanford study every day, 7 days a week, for hours. Oddly, we don’t experience much fatigue from these Zoom events. To the contrary, we often leave a 3 hour event with more energy than when we started. We have been meeting online via Zoom every day for almost a year. So what have we figured out that seemed to elude the Stanford researchers?
The secret is that the primary causes of what is termed “Zoom Fatigue” is not related to Zoom at all but much more pedestrian. It’s poor preparation and lack of the necessary technical tools. We have found that fixing the technical issues and properly structuring participation dramatically changes how people view and experience online events.
We focus on improving the system’s ratio of signal (what we want to see and hear) to noise (extraneous signals). We solve this Signal-to-Noise Ratio in the following order — Audio, Internet, Lighting, Video, Background/Environment, and event etiquette. I will address these in Part 2 of this series. But first…
We need to address some of the purported problems and solutions within the Stanford opinion piece.
Discomfort Due to Close Eye Contact
In the paper, close eye contact is suggested as a discomfort and “Anyone who speaks for a living understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time.”
For professional speakers, eye contact is often considered the most important part of communication. The vast majority of top speakers feed off of eye contact and need it to get the most out of their presentations.
We spend thousands of dollars on devices to improve the eye-to-eye connection. The fact that Zoom does not provide true eye contact (everyone is looking slightly down) is more of an issue for us than the eye contact itself.
As a note, there are few references in the article involving avatars. I view any research conducted with avatars to be invalid. I understand the reductive attempt to isolate behavior but sub-millimeter movements can change the entire meaning of an interaction. The thought that looking at a non-human face and measuring anything meaningful regarding human interaction is absurd.
“Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behavior and to send cues to others that are intentionally generated. Examples include centering oneself in the camera’s field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to signal agreement, or looking directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) to try and make direct eye contact when speaking. This constant monitoring of behavior adds up.”
Online or in person, people are always monitoring others’ nonverbal behavior. To separate this from in-person meetings discounts the requirements of real-world interactions. Yes, we have a new set of requirements but these pose no more cognitive load than considerations of our body image, clothing choices, interpersonal drama, environmental issues, and even travel/parking for the meeting itself.
The Figure 2 board meeting is a perfect example of an event that would actually be better over Zoom. In the physical world, we strain to see and often hear others in large meetings. In our daily Office Hours meetings, we have 20–30 panelists with 200–300 viewers participating in Zoom. These events would be impossible to execute in the real world. Contrary to exhaustion, most panelists view the experience as invigorating and thought provoking.
All Day Mirror
“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but in essence this is what happens on Zoom calls.”
While this is true, the source of the discomfort is misplaced. People don’t want to look at a poor version of themselves all day. Most Zoom participants are poorly lit, with the cameras looking up their noses, through hazy cameras and bright windows behind them. This is the skiing equivalent of being out on the slopes in shorts, with no jacket… and no poles. Without some technical preparation, most Zoom participants do indeed look bad. However, when the relatively simple technical issues are addressed, almost all participants look better than they do in the physical world. We find that as this is tuned, peoples’ real-world appearance often can’t compete with their video projection because the online version of oneself can be heavily controlled. You have the ability to always show your best side. This provides a new set of problems that we will not address in this article. But it doesn’t result in exhaustion.
“There is a wonderful illusion that occurs during phone calls. When I call someone, I have a vision that they are dedicating 100% of their attention to my voice. But meanwhile, throughout a 30-min phone call, I myself will do all sorts of activities, for example, stretch my lower back, cook pasta for my kids, even have a nonverbal conversation with my wife.”
While used as an example of why we don’t want to use Zoom, it points to the endemic issue of multitasking during meetings. Seen as more efficient, it often results in less objective retention and disconnected communication. The core issue that should be addressed is the number and length of meetings. For instance, Google, which relies heavily on video for meetings, rarely schedules meetings over 25 minutes. This produces a more focused and productive conversation than other formats. Phone calls are very useful for casual conversation but multitasking is a horrible habit for substantive meetings.
Nearly all the conclusions of this paper stand diametrically opposed to what we implement, successfully, every day.
“…the default setting should be hiding the self-window instead of showing it, or at least hiding it automatically after a few seconds once users know they are framed properly.”
This is exactly what we don’t want participants to do. People should be conscious of how they are projecting themselves to others, whether there is something in their space that is distracting, etc. People who do not manage their online appearance invariably do something embarrassing.
“Likewise, there can simply be a limit to how large Zoom displays any given head; this problem is simple technologically given they have already figured out how to detect the outline of the head with the virtual background feature.”
Again, the opposite of what most professionals are trying to get Zoom to implement because a clearer view of others makes it easier to communicate. Zoom users can very easily adjust the size of their window (many of us do). Zoom implementing this suggestion would be catastrophic. The platform should never limit that which the operator can manage themselves.
“Make “audio only” Zoom meetings the default, or better yet, insist on taking some calls via telephone to free your body from the frustrum.”
I will admit I did this often in the early days of Hangouts when Google was our largest client. Even though I built their events over Hangouts, I would routinely call into meetings, not wanting to deal with video. As a reformed “Audio Only” participant, I would save the reader the heartbreak of realizing that relegating myself to audio actually undermined my connection to my partners and clients. Individuals who take this advice are routinely sidelined and passed over. They are choosing to give themselves a smaller voice in the meeting and often a smaller role in the project.
Zoom should never implement this by default because many will not understand how to activate the video quickly and it will separate the more technologically astute attendees from the less experienced.
In defense of the author, this paper is clearly not complete.
“Most of the arguments in this article are hypothetical. While they are based on previous research findings, almost none of them have been directly tested.”
Unfortunately, the mainstream press has run with this article as if they were directly tested. This is an article that, hopefully, was meant to stir discussion, not generate dogma. The suggestions in this paper are inaccurate, damaging to its readers and potentially embarrassing to those that report the findings as fact. Most of these suggestions will be reversed over time and eventually seen as backwards thinking.
In the second part of this series, I will lay out real solutions that have been tested, in the field, every day. These are not theoretical but grounded in thousands of iterations over the last decade.