This is your brain on Zoom. Top 4 tips to prevent virtual fatigue.

Meetings over Zoom became our default during the shelter in place precautions due to COVID-19. Luckily, at Ampersand, our team and our work has been thriving while working remotely. But we feel compelled to acknowledge the downsides as well. Obviously, we miss the camaraderie of face-to-face conversations. However, the effects that interacting virtually has on us are more subtle.

Feeling wiped out after a long day has always been part of working—even at a job you love. But that exhaustion and mental strain are actually heightened by spending time on video calls. Because the brain processes information differently when you’re communicating virtually versus in person.

Throughout an in-person conversation, your brain not only picks upon the nuances of pitch and tone of the words being spoken, you’re also taking in information from non-verbal cues such as posture, gestures and facial expressions. It all helps your brain interpret meaning and intent. But during a video call, how someone is framed within the screen, poor resolution, or an unstable WIFI signal all interfere with those verbal and non-verbal details. The lack of those usual details impairs your brains ability to process information.

To compensate, you may react by either focusing more intently or zoning out more often. These reactions can happen subconsciously or intentionally but result in a higher mental load and diminished productivity.

“You’re on mute” is not small talk.

The problem is amplified by some of the unique features of video platforms. (When we used to walk down the hall to ask a question, we didn’t have to check our settings first.) In gallery view, where you see all of the meeting participants arranged in a Brady Bunch, Hollywood Squares grid, your brain is forced to sort more stimuli which makes it more difficult to focus on who is speaking. Unfortunately the alternative, speaker view, where whoever makes the loudest noise is highlighted in a larger window,can cause a ping-pong ball feeling of whipping from one place to another.

Another issue with seeing all the meeting participants in their own box is the fact that one of those little boxes is filled with yourself. It’s not natural to see yourself while you’re talking to someone. Your eye is drawn to your own image like a reflection in a mirror. It also makes you hyper-aware that you are being watched. Whether you feel self-conscious or not, the knowledge that you are on camera turns every interaction into a performance. This additional social pressure is draining even if you’re not completely aware of it.

In the give-and-take of a face-to-face conversation, pauses feel natural. However, the technical delay of video chats can make every pause feel off-putting. The average delay on conference systems is estimated to be just 1.2 seconds, yet that slight lag has been shown in studies to degrade people’s sense of trust and connection with the person they’re communicating with.

Here are a few simple tips on how to beat virtual fatigue.

1. Hide your own video, so you stop looking at yourself.

Change your settings to hide your own video from your display. If one person is presenting instead of a group conversation, you can also try switching from gallery view to speaker view.

2. Take breaks between video calls.

Get off of screens entirely to give your eyes a break. Stand up, stretch, and take a walk. Ideally, get outside for some fresh air and sunshine. If attendees have back-to-back meetings, try scheduling a shorter duration to give everyone 10 minutes to recharge.

3. Declare a zoom-free zone.

Book a window on your calendar to give yourself a dedicated block of time where no one else can schedule a video call with you. At Ampersand, we have a long-standing policy to avoid scheduling meetings between 11:00 and 3:00 whenever possible to allow our team time to focus on deep work.

4. Use other ways to communicate.

We’ve all heard the snarky line that a meeting could have been an email. The same is true for meeting virtually. If you’re starting to feel burnt out, ask if your next meeting can be a phone call instead. These tips may sound like common sense, but you have to remind yourself to actually follow them to reap the benefits