Are you a Zoom Zombie? How to take control of your virtual meetings
Updated: May 19
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
If you are in back-to-back virtual meetings most of the day, I bet you are exhausted. And I bet you have a whole stack of other things you’re not doing that you need to do… which is doubly exhausting, because then you have to work in the evening. What do you?
It is important to understand why virtual meetings are so tiring, and then to use this understanding to take back control.
1. Use the right communication medium for the right purpose
We don’t fire people by email, and there is a reason for this.
Different media for communicating vary in their ‘richness’, from the richest (face to face) to videoconferencing (e.g. Zoom) to audio (e.g. telephone) to computer-mediated communications such as chat rooms, online discussion, and then to email.
Face to face is the richest because it provides the cues needed to interpret what is ‘really’ going on (e.g., voice tone, facial expression; body language). We can also use all these cues to understand shifts in the conversation and to know when to speak. In a face to face meeting, some silence also usually feels okay, because you can see that people are thinking and present.
Its richness means face to face is the best mode for any interpersonally-complex communication, such as negotiating, influencing, dealing with disagreements or conflict, giving bad news, talking to someone who is distressed, addressing conflict, performance management, solving highly complex problems (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992) (and, indeed, firing someone). Face to face communication also fosters cohesion, so it’s preferred when you want to build commitment to a way forward (Wainfan & Davis, 2004).
Of course, face to face is not an option for many of us right now, so we’re having to rely instead on videoconferencing (Zoom and Skype). As the next richest medium, videoconferencing is preferred for any more complex communication.
But – and here is the rub – Zoom and Skype are still less rich than face to face communications. We can’t see people’s body language, we’re not in the same physical space so we don’t know what is happening for them, it’s challenging to work out when to speak, and our peripheral awareness is reduced (McGrath, 1991). Sometimes we can’t even hear people properly. And this is one powerful reason why zoom is so tiring – in order to navigate the interpersonal dynamics, we have to concentrate intensely to compensate for the impaired social and physical cues relative to face to face communication.
Importantly, just as research shows that ‘richer’ forms of communication are best for interpersonally complex tasks, research also shows that ‘computer-mediated communication’ (such as online chats/ online group discussions) are best for brainstorming and idea generation.
These forms of communication reduce the effects of power and status, so people are less inhibited to put forward their ideas (Wainfan & Davis, 2004). Online discussions can also be ‘asynchronous’ (not everyone has to be there at the same time), which also allows flexibility as to when people contribute.
And then, of course, there is email. Email is best for providing timely information, sharing data, and providing updates.
Your zoom energy is precious – avoid using it on brainstorming or information distribution, and reserve it for the more interpersonally complex conversations.
2. Get off the stage and use your phone occasionally.
I had an ‘a-ha’ moment this week when I had to switch to my mobile phone (audio) because the internet was playing up. What a relief… Liberated from staring at the computer screen, I got up. I walked around in the sunshine. I shut my eyes. I did some back stretches. I even did a bit of weeding of my pot plants. And the person on the other end of the phone had no idea!
In other words, the relative richness of videoconferencing compared to the telephone has a downside.
When we are on a videoconference, it’s a mini performance.
Our face is blown up on the screen, like we are a movie star, and we become conscious of how we look. Not only can people see our face, we can see our own face, which reminds us they can see our face, which makes us even more conscious of the image we are presenting!
As a consequence of all this, “self-presentation” kicks in more strongly than normal. Self-presentation refers to the behaviors we use ‘to present ourselves in a favorable light, such that others around us will think highly of us or like us’ (Barrick et al., 2009, p. 1394). It is entirely natural to want to create a positive impression. But self-presentation takes energy and can become exhausting (Devine & Hunter, 2017).
If we look away from the camera, for example, we might worry people think we’re checking our emails… so we’re constantly moving our eyes back to the screen to maintain “eye contact”. We’re also trying to convey to people that “I’m listening”; that we’re getting what they’re saying. I find myself nodding continuously. I also constantly catch myself looking at people’s eyes, instead of the camera, so I’m repeatedly adjusting my gaze. All these small actions add to the demands of the conversation.
In the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman (1959, p. 98) used the metaphor of the theatre to consider how people interact with each other. “Front stage” is where people perform, and backstage is where the “performer can relax, he can drop his front”. In you think about being a salesperson, for example, front stage is when you’re interacting with the client, and backstage is where you’re having an informal chat with your colleagues just before the meeting.
When we’re on a Zoom call, we’re on the front stage - we’re visible and ‘performing’. And its tiring.
So, get off the stage for some of your meetings, especially the ones that are just one other person and are less emotionally complex. Liberate yourself and downgrade to the phone! Or turn off the camera so people can’t see you. If you can figure out how, adjust the system so you can’t see yourself.
3. Shorter meetings, micro breaks, and chit chat
When you’re on videoconference call after call, you become tethered to the screen, and the chair. No one sees you’ve been in meeting after meeting so there’s no one offering you to delay the meeting to give you a break.
In fact, if you don’t answer someone’s zoom call immediately, you know they’re going to think you’ve forgotten so they will then send an email, call on your phone, call your assistant….
So, you just answer the call, sacrificing that micro break you were going to grab.
And then there’s no new office to walk or drive to for the next meeting…. It’s just zoom, zoom, zoom – and more sitting, sitting and sitting – and sorer neck, back, and eyes.
Shorter meetings are important for zoom calls.
Importantly, as Steven Rogelberg has argued in his book on meetings (Rogelberg, 2019), we always stretch the meeting time to fit the period we have allowed. If we’ve allowed an hour, it will take an hour. So you need to actually schedule shorter meetings. Personally, I find 30 minutes is the maximum for a zoom, you might schedule your meeting for 25 minutes, allowing a five minute break.
Then actually take a micro break – do something that is not related to work that boosts your energy (Fritz et al., 2011). Micro breaks during the day restore energy and reduce fatigue (Zacher et al., 2014). I’m going to talk more about breaks in a later blog, but here, I suggest getting off your bottom. Since many of us are sitting too much, doing something physical can help restore energy. I’ve got a yoga mat on the floor next to me and I try to do some stretches a couple of times a day.
We’re also all becoming more myopic looking at screens so much, so maybe actually change your focus of vision and walk outside for five minutes and look into the distance.
And finally, allow a bit of chit chat in your meetings. Research shows we are far more task focused on video conference calls (Wainfan & Davis, 2004). Allow for a couple of minutes of backstage chat – it helps build those social relationships and relax everyone a little bit to be able to properly engage in the meeting.
If you’re becoming a zoom zombie, understand why this form of communication can be draining, and take back control.
Barrick, M. R., Shaffer, J. A., & DeGrassi, S. W. (2009). What you see may not be what you get: Relationships among self-presentation tactics and ratings of interview and job performance [https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016532]. American Psychological Association.
Devine, K., & Hunter, K. H. (2017). PhD student emotional exhaustion: the role of supportive supervision and self-presentation behaviours. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54(4), 335-344. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2016.1174143
Fritz, C., Lam, C. F., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). It's the Little Things That Matter: An Examination of Knowledge Workers' Energy Management. Academy of Management Perspectives, 25(3), 28-39. https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.25.3.zol28
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Doubleday.
Kiesler, S., & Sproull, L. (1992). Group decision making and communication technology. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 52(1), 96-123. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(92)90047-B
McGrath, J. E. (1991). Time, Interaction, and Performance (TIP): A Theory of Groups. Small Group Research, 22(2), 147-174. https://doi.org/10.1177/1046496491222001
Rogelberg, S. G. (2019). The surprising science of meetings: How you can lead your team to peak performance. Oxford University Press. https://www.amazon.com/Surprising-Science-Meetings-Lead-Performance/dp/0190689218
Wainfan, L., & Davis, P. K. (2004). Challenges in virtual collaboration: Video conferencing, audioconferencing, and computer-mediated communications. RAND National Defense Research Institute. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a429759.pdf
Zacher, H., Brailsford, H. A., & Parker, S. L. (2014). Micro-breaks matter: A diary study on the effects of energy management strategies on occupational well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 85(3), 287-297. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2014.08.005