By Elizabeth Exline
Virtual meetings are kind of like the boyfriend or girlfriend you had in high school. The relationship felt right at the time, and you thought it would last forever. A few months in, not so much. But while your high school romances may have faded into the background, online meetings are likely here to stay. And that means it’s time to figure out how to bypass screen fatigue and build a healthy and productive relationship with your video-conferencing platform.
The emotional and physical fatigue that accompanies seemingly endless virtual meetings is well-documented. It includes such symptoms as feeling tired (during calls, in between calls, after calls) and apparently even the possibility of overeating and feeling sweaty.
The causes for screen fatigue are perhaps less concrete, but Samantha Dutton, PhD, LCSW, sums it up best when she describes the everyman experience of a virtual meeting.
"It’s like you’re on all the time, trying to think about what you’re doing," she says. "Are you typing in the chat? Are you paying attention? Are you reacting appropriately? There are so many people on these calls. What’s in the background? What’s in my background?"
Dutton is the associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix and is no stranger to remote work. She even recognizes the advantages video-conferencing platforms afford both herself and her team, from expanding the talent pool beyond a single city to granting employees greater flexibility between life and work.
Jamie Smith, chief information officer at University of Phoenix, cites still more advantages. Online conferencing platforms, he says, make it easier to manage large, in-person events. They also encourage participation among introverts who find it easier to type an idea into the group chat rather than pipe up in a crowded conference room.
Additionally, Smith points to evolving technologies like online whiteboard tools that help to level the playing field when it comes to "ideation" meetings. These platforms give everyone the same access and visibility when brainstorming but remove obstacles like shyness and distance, he says.
Of course, virtual meetings present their own set of pressures, too. There are the awkward silences, for example, which speak to "the feeling that you have to perform, you have to do something," Dutton explains.
There are also the nonverbal cues you need to tune in to. These might include smiles, frowns, quizzical expressions, hand gestures or sighs, and they’re coming from multiple people all at once.
Then, of course, there’s the frenzy of eye contact that needs to happen. "If you were at a regular meeting with 10 people, you wouldn’t have to make eye contact with the speaker the whole time," Dutton points out.
And while you do all that, don’t forget to pay attention to whatever the call is supposed to be about.
No wonder everyone’s sitting around eating doughnuts and sweating.
The first step to turning around your virtual-meeting burnout may just be upgrading your online presence. After all, if you’re going to look at yourself and your background all day, you might as well like what you’re looking at. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder, and the same holds true for virtual meetings. The biggest way to avoid screen fatigue, in other words, just might be by taking breaks.
Dutton suggests building in buffers. Aim to make meetings 50 minutes long instead of an hour, she says. Or add in a break after the one-and-a-half-hour sessions. Just taking those 10 minutes to walk around, use the restroom or do some laundry can help you reset between meetings.
Also, consider taking your lunch as a time to get away. You used to have a lunch hour. You should still have a lunch hour. Block it on your calendar, and don’t let anyone book over it.
"We have our fair share of introverts at work," Smith quips. "Not everything has to be a video meeting."
In fact, audio meetings have a few advantages. They feel more like the impromptu, drop-in meetings of pre-pandemic office life, Smith says, and they can boost participation and productivity.
Basically, it’s a good idea to match the modality of your meeting with the temperament of who’s invited. Video calls work well for small groups, especially when those small groups include extroverts. Audio calls on a virtual platform give people the mental breaks they need from virtual face time. And getting together in person can be an effective way to address a focused challenge in a short amount of time.
Just bear in mind that there are limitations to mixed modalities. Smith predicts software will eventually catch up with the demand for gatherings where some people are together and others are remote. Until then, however, "it definitely degrades," he says, when an otherwise in-person meeting has remote participants.
Beyond that, managers need to clue in to what Smith calls the "maker versus manager schedule." For creators (or "makers") who need to focus on in-depth tasks, a manager schedule of back-to-back meetings (or even a handful of meetings) can destroy productivity. Messaging platforms, as well as email, can be just as effective for such team members.
Dutton encourages people to find the beauty of a routine. Many people had a routine for going into a physical office, so they should have the same when working remotely. Building a routine, she says, can benefit mental and physical wellbeing.
"Bodies love routine because it lets your brain work less," Dutton explains. So, build in regular intervals when you get up and move or when you end for the day. Along those lines, Dutton suggests deferring to technology when appropriate. She always accepts the prompts from her automated in-office assistant to schedule focus time or block off time to answer messages. It’s an easy way, she says, to ensure you have time for the necessary if tedious tasks of the day job.
Does that put you at a disadvantage when it comes to advancing your career? For her part, Dutton rejects such pressure as unhealthy and unrealistic. One’s career shouldn’t come at the cost of one’s well-being, she points out.
Be gracious with yourself: "If you don’t do something, it doesn’t mean you failed," Dutton reassures. "It’s like dieting and you have a piece of cake. So what?" The work will still be there tomorrow.
Finding your happy ending with virtual meetings will likely come from both emerging technology and the courage to establish new cultural norms around what’s expected.
Smith, for example, has faith that the technology will eventually meet the demand for greater productivity in virtual meetings. Until then, he’s a proponent of mixing and matching among various platforms. He might take a recorded video offline, for example, and drop it into a chat. In this way, he can avoid the frustration of losing a virtual chat while taking advantage of the flexible, asynchronous chat capability of messaging platforms.
Meanwhile, the filters and ring lights meant to make you look as good as possible on those virtual meetings have their drawbacks. Smith points to the drain on your computer’s CPU specifically. But don’t despair! "The stuff built within the platforms is continuing to get better," he says hopefully.
Beyond that, Dutton advocates for greater compassion and grace around what Smith calls the work-life integration. "We’ve been in this for a year now, and we really need to establish a culture for this," she says. That means creating a sense of acceptance for the inevitable video bombs perpetrated by kids, pets and partners.
If we do this right, in other words, working from home can be a net positive for the long haul. It can be an opportunity to swim on a lunch break like Smith, or check in on a hobby between meetings like Dutton recommends.
It might not be love at first sight, but it can be the kind of love that endures.
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