Science proves Zoom meetings are awful. Here are tips to make them better

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Videoconferencing can make you feel socially fatigued (you don't want to see other people), emotionally fatigued (you just feel sad), and/or physically fatigued (your eyes hurt). That’s according to Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Image by Joseph Mucira from Pixabay

Video apps like Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and Google Meet have been used for many different things during the pandemic, including job interviews, work meetings, school, yoga classes, check-ins with friends and family. 

It can feel exhausting to sit and talk in front of a camera. Researchers at Stanford University looked into the science behind people’s collective “Zoom fatigue.”

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says “Zoom fatigue” is a generic term for feeling drained after sitting in front of any kind of video conference for much of the day. 

He says Zoom has become the generic term for videoconferencing, and he’s not trying to vilify the company. They should even be thanked for making their software free and easy to use, he points out. 

Bailenson says there are different ways to feel drained from these calls. You may be socially fatigued (you don't want to see other people), emotionally fatigued (you just feel sad), and/or physically fatigued (your eyes hurt). 

Differences between an in-person meeting vs. video conference 

“In a real meeting, if you're the speaker, people tend to look at you. But if you're the listener, nobody's really looking at you. In Zoom, it doesn't matter if you're the speaker or the listener, everybody's staring at you all the time. … It's a firehose of eye gaze and big faces in a grid. And that doesn't happen in the real world,” he says. 

Bailenson uses a metaphor: Imagine being inside an elevator with people who are all staring at you for the whole ride. “That's what we're doing for eight hours a day. It's as if we're in an elevator very close to people, and they're staring at us nonstop.”

Tricks to make Zoom a little better 

Zoom’s default setting allows you to see yourself while talking to others. 

“Imagine in your physical workplace, somebody was following you around with a mirror. And everything you did, everyone you talked to, every decision you made, you're forced to stare at your own face while you were doing that work. That would be bonkers. We would never do that in the real world. … There's decades of psychological research … that when you're forced to see a mirror image of yourself, that this causes you to scrutinize yourself, to evaluate yourself,” says Bailenson. 

The solution: Right-click on your own video and select “hide self view.” 

Another way to avoid all those eyeballs on you: Minimize the Zoom window so it doesn’t take up your entire monitor. “By shrinking the whole screen, you now have smaller faces. And so that eye gaze isn't as intense.” 

Set ground rules as a company 

What about turning off your camera entirely? Not everyone can do this, and it’s important for organizations to determine their own rules, Bailenson says. 

“For me, we have a meeting once a week, it's our lab meeting. And I'd like to see faces in that one. … It's about a 20 minute meeting. But I want to see people then. For just about every other meeting, the norm is cameras off. And so when we enter a Zoom meeting, there's no expectations to see another person's face. It's not an individual decision. And so if you have an organization, you should set some ground rules.”

A caveat: Bailenson is the boss, so he can do whatever he wants. Others can’t. 

“For those of you that manage other people, they don't have the luxury of doing whatever they want and turning their cameras on and off. … When I talked about this, just turn your camera off, my employees were quick to remind me, ‘Boss, you can do that whenever you want. It's harder for us.’ So be considerate of those who may not have the freedoms that you do.” 

Doesn’t it help with isolation when you can see faces?

“It's really nice to see someone's face for a while. But it doesn't mean that every work meeting, you need to be looking at people's faces. It also doesn't mean that in every family conversation that you have to do so as well,” Bailenson says. 

One effective option: Turn on the camera at the start of the meeting so you can get a sense of others, then turn off the camera. 

Credits

Guest:
Jeremy Bailenson - founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser