The Hidden Fatigue of Virtual Meetings

Apr 13, 2020

Today, Tuesday, I will spend a minimum of 3 hours on back-to-back Zoom calls. A week ago, Tuesday, I spent 6 hours on Zoom meetings. I won't bore you with the other details of my schedule in between during this Coronavirus time. All I know is that participating in a meeting that includes video sharing is tiring. As I think back to when I was meeting with people face to face, I often saw similar levels of interaction yet didn't feel nearly as tired at the end of the day. All this reminded m of my first trip to China.

On that trip, I was there for almost two weeks doing some work for a company. I had an excellent interpreter and found that between the interpretation and the fact that many I worked with spoke English, I was able to get along just fine. What surprised me was that every night when I went back to the hotel, I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep that was clearly way more than jet lag. This went on for about three days and nights.

On the fourth day, when I heard someone speaking in Chinese, suddenly, I found I was hearing the words being said. It was no longer random sounds. I didn’t know the vocabulary, but I was able to sift through the sounds and find the words. That night when I went to bed, I was no longer completely exhausted. In fact, during the rest of my stay, I had no difficulty distinguishing words, nor did I feel exhausted at the end of the day. I concluded that my brain had done its amazing work of interpreting the information it was receiving. It no longer was demanding so much energy.

Are virtual meetings like learning Chinese?
I know that working from our homes is new for most of us, and there are many suggestions on how to deal with those challenges. Here I choose to look at just one – the daily, constant, virtual meetings as a new phenomenon for us. Many of my colleagues are asking, “What makes it harder to participate virtually especially if we are sharing images via video?”

 Assuming the facilitator of the meeting knows and uses all the strategies that make a meeting engaging, I think there are at least four other things going on.

  • We suddenly are aware of our own image – something we might have considered in face-to-face encounters, but never really could do anything about once we entered the room as we couldn’t see ourselves in action. Now, our image is there to observe.
  • We can only see a part of the others who are in the meeting. We are accustomed to seeing people along with their whole bodies, or at least from their waist up as they sit across the table from us. We are accustomed to understanding what their body postures are telling us. We’ve learned that. It no longer takes that much brain power to interpret their movements. With less to see in the video, we are recalibrating what their movements mean, and this takes brain power.
  • Similarly, our peripheral vision is limited in virtual meetings, and again we must take more action and thought to scan across the faces.
  • Norms for participation in a virtual meeting are in flux. In a face to face meeting, if you wish to speak, you simply lean forward or move your hand as if in gesture or just open your mouth, and the others know that you have something to say, give you an opening, and you say what you need to say. In virtual meetings, what is the best way to indicate you would like to speak? Do you raise your hand like a grade school student or do you break in?
  • Some people are very comfortable in a virtual meeting and feel the same comfort as if they were in a room with the other members. If they want to get up to refill their coffee cup, they simply do so. Others are still figuring out how to do what they need or wish to do without sending the wrong signal.
  • And if your video is off, although necessary sometimes, there is a sense of ‘distance’ from them in any meeting especially when all you see is a number.

I believe the good news is that the more we meet virtually, the easier it will be for us as we learn how to interpret the small signals that we receive during such a meeting. For example, I’ve already learned how to interpret if the eyes of someone are looking at the meeting’s window or some other window on their screen. I know that someone who leaves the screen for a moment and returns to a fully comfortable position is someone who has been in virtual meetings many times before. I'm learning and so can you.


What to do?
First, we must recognize we are learning how to do this and should be tolerant with ourselves that when we are learning a new skill, it takes time and energy. What to do?

  • Breathe slowly and deeply so that your brain is better oxygenated. Do this at every moment it occurs to you.
  • Focus on the speaker’s image to reduce the ‘noise’ of all the other members on the call.
  • Avoid looking at your image even if you have to put another, small window over your own image during the call. (Some platforms make your image so small that it is easy to ignore, but in others, your image is as large as anyone else.)
  • At the least, ask if everyone will sign in with their names instead of their phone number. It’s usually easy to sign out and sign back in with your name. Better if everyone uses their videos, but your name says, "I'm really here" better than a number.
  • Breathe and let your brain do what it does best. Then take a nap.

What challenges have you experienced as virtual meetings pile up on your calendar? What strategies have you used to get through them successfully? Post them here. I want to learn even more.

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