Last March, when we were just beginning to shelter in-place, I had a Zoom meeting with a new client. I kept noticing his eyes darting back and forth. Finally, he yelled, “Fuck!” then gathered his composure and said, “I’m really sorry, but I’ve had like 40 emails come in since we started talking.”
The following day, a team member made a presentation while her newborn wailed in the background. Despite this eardrum-bursting pitch, her composure and concentration were remarkable. Mine, not so much. My maternal instincts kicked in, and I could only focus on the crying baby. I seriously wondered if my milk might come in.
More recently, I had a Zoom interview with two new potential clients from two locations. One was engaging and friendly, while the other went silent after his initial introduction. I watched him rub his forehead, sip his coffee, and gaze down towards his feet. Was he busy texting? Meditating? Watching a bug skitter across the floor? I’ll never know. He might’ve been in virtual attendance, but his attention was clearly elsewhere. I left the interview feeling even more invisible than if I’d never appeared on-screen.
Even during really fun Zoom gatherings, like the ones we’ve had with family, I sometimes get sleepy after staring at 18 faces simultaneously. Evidently this drowsy feeling following online meetings is incredibly common—so much so it’s earned its own slang term, Zoom fatigue.
According to researchers at Western University in Canada, one reason online meetings simply cannot replicate the real thing is the lack of eye contact. In order to appear to have eye contact online, we need to stare at the camera, not the person’s face, making genuine eye contact impossible.
We also miss out on nonverbal body cues and micro-expressions that occur spontaneously in real time and cannot be as easily detected through our screens. Without these cues and physical contact, our brains have to work double time while focusing solely on each other’s voices and faces. Group chats are even harder, because our attention is continually partially focused.
So what can you do to ease the effects of virtual meetings? First and foremost, make a point to avoid multitasking, which will only further divide your attention. Close any tabs or programs that might distract you prior to your scheduled meeting time.
Studies show that when you’re on video, you actually spend the most time staring at your own face. The solution? Hide your face from view. Simply right-click your video to display the menu, then choose “Hide Myself.” Others at the meeting will still be able to see you, though you’ll no longer see yourself.
If appropriate, communicate via phone or email instead of scheduling an online meeting. You’ll save valuable time and be able to get more work completed.
After meetings, give yourself a screen break. Peer out at nature. Take a stroll around the block. Hug your dog. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Stretch. And if you’re lucky enough to be sheltering with fellow humans, have a cup of tea together. After all, even though we’re able to virtually connect across the miles and time zones, we feel truly connected when we’re actually with one another.