By Anne Miller, Contributor
Countless faces in tiny digital squares appear as talking heads on laptop screens—welcome to the working world, circa 2020.
If Zoom, Teams, Hangouts, and GoToMeeting obligations feel exhausting, it’s not just because of the pandemic-driven isolation—but rather how the human brain functions, according to social cognitive psychology.
Understanding how and why video conferencing overwhelms our brains and triggers fatigue may help people ameliorate its negative effects. And, who knows, maybe it will inspire someone to create an even better in-person meeting alternative.
Too Many Faces, Too Few Cues
Melanie Polkosky holds a PhD in social cognitive psychology, works as a user experience psychologist, and has a side business as a certified professional coach. She’s currently the senior vice president for customer experience at an artificial intelligence (AI) startup in Dublin, Ireland, Sweepr, which combines AI and human behavior knowledge to offer customer support for the connected home. Polkosky, who’s worked from a home office outside Memphis for the past 16 years, offers a host of reasons why virtual meetings tax our brains in ways gathering in a boardroom doesn’t.
“We have this barrage of social cues that come at us all the time when we’re interacting with people—how I appear and how I use my hands, the fact that I’m waving my hands around, the pitch and loudness of my voice—all of these things are constant streams of information that you’re using to make a judgement,” says Polkosky.
We’re looking at ourselves as we speak, she explains. Is our hair in place? Does that shirt look okay? Has broccoli cluttered my teeth? It’s a moving mirror image of input we can’t help but consider, which doesn’t exist in the physical realm.
If you find yourself realizing you wave your hands a lot because you now see yourself talking on your screen all the time, you might start wondering what others are thinking of you and consequently feel more self-conscious. And that’s added brain work.
“Not only is the incoming information different, but then how I go about explaining it to myself is a lot more taxing,” she says.
Then there’s the social hierarchy. In a physical meeting space, we know who the meeting leader is and who the most important figures are; we can watch and absorb their social cues and let others’ fall to the side of our consciousness, Polkosky says. “It’s a way of filtering the social info coming at you.”
In a virtual meeting, all the squares line up the same. There’s no head seat, no postures of confidence. Everyone in the room doesn’t turn at the same time in the same way to focus on the leader. Without that physical differentiation, our brains have to work overtime to remember who is the leader.
And all those Zoom backgrounds add to the cacophony, says Leah Schade, a professor at the Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where 90 percent of teaching happens online. Suddenly, you’re not just processing the boardroom, but 10 different blocks of coworker scenery, she writes in a column.
Additionally, we may feel more compelled to pay strict attention and not doodle—look down, look out a window—as we might in a physical meeting space. These actions give brains a break; looking fully engaged at a busy screen for hours becomes exhausting. “Because of these things competing for our attention, our brains are depleted by the end of the meeting,” Schade writes.
The solutions, especially when so many people cannot physically access their offices, remain limited. Talking on a phone is less taxing, for example, but overall, there’s not much research that can help guide approaches to making this easier. One study, for example, discusses “computer-mediated communication anxiety (CMC),” a type of anxiety some people may feel when interacting with someone on a screen via that can make them stressed and hesitant. The study found that CMC anxiety makes people less likely to interact with their peers online, though the research calls for a deeper investigation into how to combat this type of anxiety.
“You don’t see hundreds of researchers researching phone conversations in comparison to chat in comparison to video conferencing,” Polkosky says, even though that’s something a lot of people—especially now—might want to know.
Interaction styles can change, as well. For example, a more dominating manager whose physical cues in person might allow him or her to hold all the focus at a meeting might, online, keep interrupting employees since it may be harder to signal when they want to speak. Meanwhile, someone who participates at a moderate pace in person may hesitate to speak up online over concerns of interrupting someone else or feeling unsure about etiquette around jumping into a conversation. And their coworkers must then acclimate to these personality traits.
“I think of it in terms of layers of challenges,” Polkosky says. “The net result on our brain is that it’s increasing the amount of brain activity we’re having around all this.”
And that, she says, can make anyone feel tired after a day of Zoom meetings.
Solutions and a New Normal
But the exhaustion doesn’t have to last.
Like a muscle, our brains can learn to accept and grow with this new way of working, Polkosky says. Maybe we learn to ignore our waving hands. Maybe a manager figures out how to add an extension so people can raise their hands instead of talking over each other. As we adjust, other office practices may fall to the wayside. Managers who required in-office appearances may see that employees can reliably work from home.
“A forced situation like this shows that people can be productive (working from home). There can still be a sense of community and teamwork.”
—Melanie Polkosky, psychologist, certified professional coach, senior vice president of customer experience at Sweepr
“People tend to work longer hours and are more productive working from home,” Polkosky says. “A forced situation like this shows that people can be productive. There can still be a sense of community and teamwork.”
Polkosky says she works in chunks—focusing for a few hours, then taking a break, then returning. Her starting point and ending point may seem like a longer work day, but the longer breaks and multitasking—a few loads of laundry, walking the dog—add up to more productivity and sanity.
Breaks, especially when meeting virtually, are so important. Take Dell Technologies, for instance: Even though all of the on-campus fitness facilities shuttered amid isolation orders, the physical trainers employed by those centers are still working.
Breaks, especially when meeting virtually, are so important. Even just a few minutes’ break to stretch, walk around the house, play with the kids a few times a day can suffice.
Before this spring, they might have one call a week to lead a movement break for Dell staff during a marathon meeting. Now that everyone’s home, they’re being asked to lead 30 to 35 such sessions, says Eric Zisk, the director of client operations for Well at Dell. Zisk overseas the 12 fitness centers and 29 full-time employees at Dell campuses.
They’re also offering live classes for those who would otherwise have access to a fitness center, and for employees who aren’t based at one of those 12 campuses, there’s a library of digital offerings. Even just a few minutes’ break to stretch, walk around the house, play with the kids a few times a day can suffice.
“It’s going to help you with joint pains and any potential issues from prolonged sitting,” Zisk says, via Zoom from a linen closet in his Massachusetts home. “Even just shutting your eyes for five minutes, that’s going to help from a focus perspective and give your mind and eyes a break.”
And as long as you’ve toggled off your video, no one will notice anyway.