Video Communication With People: A Human's Experience (Part II)

Why do we feel so exhausted after a day of online meetings? And more importantly, what can we do to make it a better experience.

10 million people attended meetings on Zoom at the end of 2019 before coronavirus was widespread. By April 2020, this number has already jumped to 300 million. While video conferencing became an essential tool for socializing, studying, and working, we're discovering what happens when we spend long hours on video meetings. We even came up with a name for it: zoom fatigue. Symptoms vary depending on each person, but the most common symptoms are tiredness and anxiety.

But what causes zoom fatigue?

According to scientists, video call technology we use at home doesn't meet the requirements for elaborate human communication methods, creating additional work for our brain to fill communication gaps.

One problem is that we expect perfect timing between video and audio during transmission, but that is not what happens. Actually, there is a small delay between when someone performs an action, and when the person on the other side of the screen can observe it. Although the delay is only for milliseconds, the brain has to spend valuable energy to restore synchrony.

Another difficulty is that over 65% of human communication is non-verbal. We continuously rely on body signals during a conversation to make ourselves understood more easily. So, depending on video quality and camera position, your brain loses essential information, and communication becomes harder.

Talking to someone through a screen also confuses our perception of reality, and you tend to ignore visual cues that you wouldn't if you were talking to the same person face-to-face. There's an impersonification related to using an object to broadcast a message (a computer or smartphone screen, for example). For your brain, it's like you're watching TV.

When you're talking to someone remotely, you tend to be more formal, which changes how communication happens, adding more words and social stress.

Also, familiarity with technology itself influences the conversation. Regardless of how tech-savvy people are, software bugs and unexpected connection problems act as distraction and stress motivators, potentially disrupting communication flow.

Finally, if the person's image on the screen is framed in a way that her face is too big, people might feel threatened. Even too much eye contact may pose as intimidation. These situations stimulate stress hormones, like cortisol.

Bench outside in fall
A humane tech environment for chatting with someone.

What can you do to ease the situation?

First, ask every participant on the call to place the camera at enough distance to allow people to see their body language. This means being able to see each other's hands and shoulders.

Secondly, limit how long the call is going to take. Avoid having video calls that last more than one hour. If you need it to be longer, consider inserting a break. There are excellent alternatives for having online discussions, and eventually, you'll discover that not every discussion needs to become a meeting.

Also, use screens with at least 21'' and full HD resolution when attending to video calls. Don't use your smartphone, or you'll end up multitasking, and that will definitely drain your energy.

Ensure every participant's face is getting enough light, with the camera height aligned to become more comfortable for others to understand micro-expressions. Remember to position the camera, so when you look at the screen, you're also looking directly at the camera. Mute your mic when you're not speaking.

Is there hope for a definitive solution to avoid zoom fatigue?

Maybe, yes. The high demand for video conferencing and remote work motivates researchers and companies to offer different approaches and innovative products. Spatial, for example, offers a VR/AR product that allows participants to create avatars of themselves to sit next to each other and even shake hands.

Video communication has intriguing cons and pros. In one way, they make communication more accessible and powerful, but at the same time, they make communication a much more demanding task. It's not yet clear to me when and how technology will add the final piece to this puzzle. Will VR become affordable enough and, at the same time, meet all the technical requirements to work this? Will it bring new problems? Let's wait and see.