The camera is the culprit – and more insights into Zoom fatigue
Over the last 18 months, almost all of us have become familiar with a new condition: Zoom fatigue. It impacts nearly everybody, up to and including Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, who earlier this year said he endured a day with 19 consecutive virtual meetings.
Allison Gabriel, McClelland Professor of Management and Organizations and University Distinguished Scholar in the Eller College of Management, who has spent much of the pandemic studying virtual meeting fatigue, shared five of her key findings with Lo Que Pasa.
1. The camera plays a large role in contributing to fatigue.
The results of Gabriel's study, which focused on 103 employees of Tucson-based business services company BroadPath, suggest fatigue is more closely tied to camera use than the actual volume of meetings. Simply put, when people had their cameras on, they reported more fatigue than their noncamera-using counterparts.
"Across several of our analyses, it became clear that it was the camera use that contributed to fatigue, not the number of meetings and not the number of hours spent in virtual meetings," Gabriel says. "It was something about being on camera that was an isolated effect."
2. Virtual meeting fatigue hits some groups harder than others.
Women and newer employees experienced amplified fatigue from being on camera.
"Women were taking on disproportionate levels of child care during the heart of the pandemic, and they still are," Gabriel says. "So they are at greater risk of having kids come into the background or family interruptions – all of these things that generally call into question people's level of commitment to their jobs."
Gabriel adds that women often feel pressure to be "effortlessly perfect," leading to additional fatigue caused by self-presentation stress.
Newcomers, Gabriel says, are already feeling the pressure of learning the norms and making good first impressions at a new company. In addition, they don't have established relationships in the company and may not know how to interpret someone else's tone or comments. Navigating those factors can be even more difficult in a virtual setting.
3. Being off camera does not necessarily mean someone is less engaged.
Because using the camera contributed to fatigue, it indirectly ended up decreasing engagement levels. Researchers found those required to have their cameras on were less likely to speak up and voice ideas.
"It's this counterintuitive finding that the very purpose of cameras, which is to promote engagement, could actually be hurting engagement in an indirect way," Gabriel explains. "We need to shatter the assumptions we have about people who have their camera off."
Gabriel says the research team heard from employees at many different companies after the study was published who said they were able to take notes and look up material more easily with cameras off, while others said they like to walk around during meetings to help them think more clearly and generate ideas.
4. Fatigue is lessened when employees have a choice.
Gabriel believes supervisors can draw two main takeaways from the research.
"First, talk to your employees and see how they are feeling about cameras," Gabriel suggests. "And second, try to encourage autonomy in camera usage and discourage any conversation about people being less engaged if they are off camera.”
5. 'Otherness' is among areas where further study is needed.
The research team plans to keep working with BroadPath to take a deeper dive into the mental effects of virtual meetings and how they can be mitigated.
For example, Gabriel points to a strong sense of "otherness" that occurs when half of a workforce is attending a meeting in person while the other half is virtual. The team also wants to look into technological aspects of meetings, like using gamification or side-view cameras, to see if they can lessen the fatigue workers feel.
Gabriel was a co-author on the paper along with Mahira Ganster, a doctoral candidate in the Eller College of Management.
Zoom fatigue was among many issues that you and your colleagues explored in your work-from-home haiku. Revisit the collection of dozens of submissions in this UA@Work article.