Last March millions of people around the world suddenly found themselves working from home—or from wherever they happened to be living when Covid-19 hit. Office jockeys set up ad-hoc workstations in their homes and faced down the “new normal.”
Of course, not all homes are equally suitable for an eight-day grind. We may be a bit biased, but Blueground apartments are ideal for work-from-home productivity. Each turnkey furnished apartment is laid out by a professional interior designer and comes standard with the latest smart tech. A new guest can check in via the Blueground app, plug in her laptop, and be connected with her team across the world within an hour of arrival. Our homes are also thoughtfully designed to facilitate good work-life balance. You may spend your day virtually plugged in with your colleagues, but when the work day is over it’s easy to recharge with a home cardio workout from one of our partners, prepare a healthy meal in your fully stocked kitchen, or step outside for a walk in the park.Once most offices closed due to the pandemic video conferencing quickly became the norm for meetings and downloads of programs like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom skyrocketed last March and April and now almost a year later many companies are still using videoconferencing software as a primary means of communication.
While it’s great that we can instantly connect with colleagues via streaming video, there are a few downsides to this means of communication—most notably “Zoom fatigue.” (In fact, there are good reasons why digital nomads need to slow down.) If you have more than one or two video calls during a work day it’s easy to end up feeling drained. It turns out that there’s actually a complex scientific explanation behind this common complaint.
Jeremy Bailenson, Thomas More Storke Professor of Communication at Stanford University and founder of the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has studied the psychological effects of videoconferencing in detail and in February published his findings in the scholarly journal Technology, Mind and Behavior. Bailenson shared four key factors that cause Zoom fatigue with the Stanford News Service.
Bailenson points out that video meetings typically involve far more gazing into our colleagues’ eyes than we would ever do in a conference room. “In general, for most setups, if it’s a one-on-one conversation when you’re with coworkers or even strangers on video, you’re seeing their face at a size which simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you’re with someone intimately,” he said. Typically this kind of sustained eye contact is reserved for intimate family gatherings, romantic situations, or tense confrontations, not the weekly budget meeting. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state.”
Most video-conferencing platforms show you in a tile alongside your colleagues during a call, and your brain is constantly distracted by your “reflection” on the screen. Numerous studies cited by Bailenson demonstrate that looking at yourself in a mirror makes you feel more critical of yourself. Unless you’re a reality TV star, you don’t typically experience your every mundane expression or gesture broadcast onto a screen. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
When you’re in a Zoom meeting you need to make sure your face is in frame for the duration of the call, effectively freezing you into your desk chair. It turns out this causes more damage than just a literal pain in the neck. Sitting still for long periods of your time isn’t just taxing for your body, it drains your brain. Bailenson points to research that shows how our cognitive performance is actually better when we’re able to move around a little.
Nonverbal communication is a big part of how humans build trust and exchange their views, but much of its nuance is lost when we’re flattened into two-dimensional video boxes. As a result, our brains kick into overdrive trying to interpret our colleagues’ body language and telegraph our own negative and positive nonverbal cues. “If you want to show someone you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod and put your thumbs up,” Bailenson said. “That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
Now that you know the reasons video calls leave you feeling drained you can focus on lightening your mental load. Here are some simple strategies to restore your energy and achieve better work-life balance.
Increasing your physical distance from your laptop’s screen can mitigate the brain’s sensory overload from the sustained eye contact that’s a necessary evil of videoconferencing. Even better, if you hook up a wireless keyboard you won’t have to lean in to type a quick note or send a link during a video meeting.
The light emitted from the LCD screens on our laptops, phones, and TVs is taxing on the eyes and can affect melatonin production, resulting in poor sleep. A study from the UK National Institute of Health showed that more than one-third of participants who wore blue light glasses during the workday noticed an improvement in eye fatigue and sleep quality.
If you have two video meetings in close proximity, try a literal time out. Turn off the lights in your home office and tune in to a five or 10 minute guided meditation to relax both your eyes and your mind. You can set a timer on your phone or use apps like Buddhify, Calm, Headspace, and Healthy Minds, which offer hundreds of short meditation tracks.
Bailenson suggests that work groups introduce regular screen breaks during meetings, giving everyone time to move around, stretch, grab a snack, and let their brains lighten the cognitive load that builds up when we study each others’ expressions on video calls.
The cognitive benefits of exercise can’t be denied, and it’s also great to relieve muscle fatigue from sitting unnaturally still during a videoconference. Experiment with short, no sweat workouts that you can do at your desk, like BodyFit by Amy’s five-minute workout series or apps like Wakeout or 7 Minute Chi.
Looking at a video feed of your own face ramps up anxiety, but most videoconferencing platforms allow you to hide yourself in group meeting views. Bailenson found that turning off your “mirror” helps nix negative feelings about yourself that crop up during long Zoom meetings.
Videoconferencing may be convenient, but the strain on our collective mental health can ultimately be bad for productivity. Carolyn Reinach Wolf, a mental health attorney and columnist for Psychology Today, points out that suggesting a phone call when a video conference seems unnecessary is acceptable because turning our cameras off is ultimately better for work-life balance.
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