Viewpoint: Go the extra mile to avoid Zoom fatigue
By Johnny C. Taylor Jr. and Sarah Gershman
First, there were “Zoom shirts.” Now, workplaces face another remote work phenomenon: “Zoom fatigue.” This new form of exhaustion started to set in as employees found themselves working from home — not for just a few weeks, as we so naively imagined last year, but for months, isolated and confined to their home or office.
Counterintuitively, this mass, global shift to remote work resulted in higher productivity. Initially, this fact was cited and celebrated as the triumph of modern telework over traditional offices. However, over time, a caveat emerged: The increase was illusory. Rather than true gains in productivity, it came at the cost of more time (48 minutes additional per day) at the computer. In fact, after six months of working from home, Society for Human Resource Management research found workers reported feeling half as productive while working from home. And, more recently, LinkedIn found signs of burnout were up 33% in 2020.
And employees aren’t just struggling with concentration and motivation — they’re struggling emotionally, too. SHRM research found that nearly one in four employees have reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless often. It’s the responsibility of leadership to double down against stigmas and guarantee employees know about resources available. Employers must be role models as they encourage behavior that will support employees. Recommendations include:
• Zoom breaks. Employees should be required to take, at a minimum, a five-minute break between virtual meetings. Ideally, this should involve getting up from the desk and moving around. Just a little movement, or a slight change of scenery, can work wonders for the mind.
• Meeting prep. When calendars get booked, prep time often falls through — left to weekends or after hours, which, of course, feeds into fatigue. Meetings can be far more productive, and life less stressful, if leaders and participants alike spend at least a few minutes beforehand in quiet preparation. After all, preparation begets presence.
• Meeting-to-work ratio. Virtual scheduling tends to be much easier and more flexible. While this is convenient, it also results in too many meetings scheduled per day. Ideally, no more than half of any day should be spent in meetings. Management and executives are another story; often, the nature of their role requires most time spent in meetings. But by setting limits, companies will better be able to prioritize which meetings need to happen each day, and who really needs to be there. This frees up time for important solo work, which all too often gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list, which also magnifies feelings of fatigue.
• Cameras on. It is much harder to multitask in a video meeting than a conference call. Companies should require that all participants turn on their video and set other devices aside. This is much easier to do when there are fewer meetings per day and when each person attending is essential to the meeting. Multitasking during meetings is a major cause of Zoom fatigue and, in some cases, injuries — e.g., Zoom neck stiffness syndrome.
While it is too soon to see how Covid-19 will change the world of work, it is, unfortunately, easy to envision one wherein organizations report, long term, greater degrees of burnout, sloppier work, more turnover and an isolated and disengaged remote workforce. Employers must make it their priority to establish these new norms to help ensure real and lasting productivity — and ultimately protect employees from burnout.