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Quantifying Webcam Fatigue

Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic I can’t help but think about how naive I was about it all. My first thought when global lockdowns started was “this is no big deal, we will be getting back to normal soon.” Now that we are almost two years into dealing with disease and all of the complications that come with it I realize how very wrong I was. I had no idea what a huge impact it would have on our lives. Some aspects of the transition were actually rather painless. The world collectively learned how to do many of our same tasks remotely. The video meeting became the standard. Zoom became a household verb. Other aspects of life didn’t fit so well into our new remote first lives. All of us felt the strain on the social aspect of our lives in some way from not being able to visit loved ones or spending much more time alone. That leads me to my second naive idea, one that many of us had way back in 2020: I can use the same tools that help me work from home to facilitate social interactions.

For a quick moment, my friends and I all tried to get together for what was being called a “Zoom happy hour.” I say quick moment because we did it exactly one time. It wasn’t that the experience was bad, mind you, we shared some laughs as always. It was that after a long day of video meetings the last thing any of us wanted to do was log back on and socialize. Plus, we could all sense that the banter had changed a bit, we no longer effortlessly bounced from one topic to another as we would in a normal conversation. Instead, we found ourselves taking turns expounding on the topic at hand like, well, like a meeting.

We all have a sense that video meetings are not the same as in-person ones, you obviously lose a bit of the interpersonal cues that make a conversation flow. But what is harder to gather is how these video meetings affect us. We all have a sense that Zoom fatigue is real, but I always thought it was due to the sheer number of meetings we have now that 30-minute video meetings are the accepted business standard. According to The National Bureau of Economic Research that isn’t the case. Even though we might have more meetings post-pandemic the length of these meetings is shorter (after 40 minutes you have to pay up!) making it an overall 11.5 percent decrease in the average time spent in meetings pre-pandemic. Why we feel so fatigued from our virtual meetings is what a recent study called The Fatiguing Effects of Camera Use in Virtual Meetings set out to measure. 

Researchers studied 103 employees at a health care company for 19 days. They would randomly ask employees to either keep their camera on or off for the meetings each day and would send them a daily survey assessing fatigue, voice, and engagement for that workday. Fatigue and engagement are rather straightforward but voice is a new concept in organizational behavior that means that the employee feels free to express themselves and voice concerns. All three of these are seen as pillars to our understanding of morale and productivity. To try to account for the subjective nature of these qualities researchers analyzed responses “with-in person,” comparing each person’s video and non-video days. 

What they found was not exactly shocking to anyone who has spent long days in video meetings. “Our findings suggest that using a camera can be fatiguing for employees and may inadvertently detract from helping employees stay engaged in virtual work, which counters conventional wisdom on the topic (e.g., Kanter, 2017),” the report states. It goes on to cite previous research that shows how video in addition to voice “humanizes the room” thanks to the importance of facial expressions but adds this rebuttal: “Although such sentiments were likely relevant pre-pandemic when virtual meetings were less prevalent, our results suggest that the use of video in virtual meetings poses an additional burden.”

More interesting to me than was what this research found about why the video aspect of meetings was so fatiguing and it all has to do with the concept of self preservation. I will let the report define it for you: “Self-presentation refers to the idea that most people have an innate desire to be viewed in a favorable light and aim to convey positive information about themselves.” 

Ok, no duh, right? Well, when we know that our image is, as the kids say, on blast it really changes how we act. “Regardless of the camera status of others in the meeting, meeting participants who have their cameras switched on tend to send extra intentional nonverbal cues (e.g., nodding exaggeratedly to indicate agreement, speaking louder, trying to show they are making eye contact by looking in the camera), which require additional cognitive effort on their behalf.” 

I don’t know about you but I felt a bit called out when I first read that take. I know my wife and I are always amazed at how much louder we talk in virtual meetings than in real life. The researchers also noticed that “participants in virtual meetings have much more prolonged gazes and are less likely to look away from the speaker than in face-to-face interactions (Andrist et al.,2013; Bailenson, 2021), which can further contribute to cognitive demands associated with feeling watched.”

The fatigue that comes with self-preservation isn’t universally felt, either. The report noted that “women and newer employees were more fatigued by the use of cameras.” It makes sense that people who might feel more pressure to look good in these meetings would be more affected by them.

Even though this report really just confirmed my suspicions it got me thinking about the repercussions of our immediate and frankly haphazard adoption of virtual meetings. These digital conversations didn’t just take the place of our in-person meeting, they have taken the place of almost every real-time interaction since no one under 30 seems to want to talk on the phone anymore. There is something more personal about sharing our faces, our outfits, and our homes in video meetings so we need to use them responsibly. Some meetings should still be phone calls. Hell, most meetings could just be concisely written emails. Maybe it’s time to save our video faces for special occasions, when we want to get to know someone, connect with our loved ones, or maybe even share a laugh in an awkward Zoom happy hour.

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