Why virtual meetings are so exhausting
The unprecedented explosion of video calling in response to the pandemic has shown that virtual interaction can be hard on the brain as a result of the increased cognitive demands. Many people are reported to suffer from Zoom fatigue, feeling exhausted or burned out by any kind of video call or conference. Photo: Vadym Pastukh / iStock
We are smitten with the latest videoconferencing technology much as a lover is smitten with a new partner. We notice everything that is wonderful and nothing that is not — for a while, at least. Then the reality sets in. And the worrisome becomes more obvious, sometimes too obvious—unless the relationship is going to work. Of course, the sooner the wonders and the worries are appreciated, the better. Accordingly, before we close down too many offices, let’s review the benefits of this technology briefly, of which we are well aware, to give greater attention to its drawbacks.
CASUAL CONVENIENCE WITH SURPRISING STRUCTURE
We used to travel to the office and walk to our meetings, or we would spend hours in an airplane to get there. Now, a few seconds before the meeting begins, we amble over to our laptop in the convenience of our own homes and log on. Lo and behold, everyone is there in plain view. What could be more casual, or more convenient?
But wait. Don’t be fooled by such apparent informality. What may seem casual in execution can be rather formal in organisation. These videoconferences can be a lot more tightly structured than most meetings at the office. They are not random; they are pre-planned with predetermined sets of participants, each focused on one screen, one frame, in his or her e-box. In other words, videoconferencing can be orchestrated. There is, of course, a reality on that screen—as there is reality everywhere, and not just in the ‘real world’, whatever that is. Here the screen is a focused reality, even when each of the participants comes to it from the rich and varied reality of their own home.
Of course, many meetings at the office were carefully scheduled too. But once started, they didn’t have to remain that way. People could move around, chat aside, get attention to question the frame. And many more meetings were never scheduled at all – they simply happened. Somebody walking by a door could start a conversation, two people at a coffee machine might speak. Think of how much constructive business was conducted that way back then.
Team col... laboration
A recent study published on PLOS ONE suggests that videoconferencing can inhibit the ideas that grow from group collaboration, dubbed ‘collective intelligence’, as it disrupts audio cues and causes unequal contribution from all stakeholders. For example, delays in or misconfiguration of the audio can distract participants from the main content of meetings. Bad audio quality also can make the speaker sound less intelligent, competent and likable. Image: Tom Fishburne@marketoonist.com
Have you bumped into anyone on Zoom lately? Or have you had much banter at the end of a video call? Caught up on news? Consolidated a relationship? We go back to our own solitary coffee machines. Don’t look for close encounters of any kind on this technology.
Do you plan to attend your favourite business conference online this year? Joining sessions virtually will be convenient, but don’t expect to meet the person who could become your next best customer.
Are you in favour of bashing the bureaucracy, or flattening the hierarchy? Then have a look at that screen. In a corner is a ‘mute’ button you can use to block out your sound so that no-one can hear your dog barking, or you talking on another call. On just one of those laptops, however, is something more formidable, like the conch shell in ‘Lord of the Flies’. There, one mute button can mute all the others, enabling one person to control the conversation: decide who gets to speak and for how long. Bash the dissent, elevate the hierarchy. Try waving a hand to get attention then! Alternately, when no such button exists, be prepared for chaos in any meeting of more than a few people. Have you been on a large family Zoom call recently, with everyone talking at once (like a cocktail party without being able to take anyone aside)?
MASS COMMUNICATING MINUS COMMUNITY AND COLLABORATION
It’s amazing how many people can be brought together on a videoconferencing call. One of us gave a live podcast on his latest book, with an audience in China of 50,000. Every single listener was close by, at their own screen: speakers at full volume in intimate conversation with whoever asked a question, as if there was no-one else there with you. What a change from speaking in a hall, with someone at a microphone asking a question, to hear the answer from a distant podium. On the screen at home, both parties are right there, for all to see, seemingly inches from each other, and from everyone looking on. (Be careful about that little blemish on your cheek.)
The problem is that such intimacy disappears as soon as another person appears on the screen: easy come, easy go in this wired world. And when that ‘Leave Meeting’ button is hit, gone is any sense of community that may have tried to raise its head. One of us had a number of video conversations with a CEO for purposes of research. But it was only when they met face-to-face that she felt they really got to know each other, thus enabling the project to move forward.
A sense of communityship beyond leadership is key to the harmonious functioning of any organisation. Good organisations work hard to establish this. That sense of community doesn’t disappear with videoconferencing among people who have already been in close touch, but is it enhanced? And can it develop in the first place within a group of people who don’t already know each other?
A colleague reported that his daughter appreciated the chance to continue her yoga classes virtually, instead of having to stop them. But she complained that “I can’t hug them!”. It’s tough to express warmth, let alone trust, on a screen.
ORCHESTRATED HARMONY OR SPONTANEOUS CREATIVITY
Have you seen one of those wonderful orchestra pieces performed upon the screen, with everybody playing so harmoniously together, each in his or her electronic box? This was, in fact, as constructed as an edited film: they all played apart until someone put it together. The alternative, with no conductor, is the cacophony of “Happy Birthday” that you have probably sung to a relative on a Zoom call.
Imagine what that podcast in China did for that book, with everyone’s attention drawn to it for an hour. What could be better for an author, or a CEO having to make a point to the company minions? But how about when a CEO, or anyone else, who needs an innovative design or a clever solution to a nasty problem needs to communicate?
Back in 2019, a few of us could pile into a conference room in the presence of a white board with papers strewn across a table, while we engaged each other enthusiastically to come up with something novel. We walked around, shared notes, scribbled on the board, took each other aside to get in deeper. How to replicate this on a videoconference call? What’s to see beyond the screen, what’s to do beyond the keyboard? Click for spontaneity? Hit the “Serendipity” key?
Lateral vision is as important in management as it is in sport. We can no more play basketball with our eyes fixated on the net than can we manage an organisation with our eyes fixated on a screen.
A VR ‘Meetaverse’
Facebook launched a virtual reality ‘office’, Horizon Workrooms, where users can host meetings with cartoon avatars of their colleagues, as part of Mark Zuckerberg's ambition to turn the platform into a ‘metaverse’. Bill Gates predicts that within the next two or three years, most virtual meetings will move from 2D camera image grids to the metaverse. Source: Horizon Workrooms
SO PLEASE, NOT BACK TO THE SAME OLD, SAME OLD ‘NEW NORMAL’
In 1975, one of us published an article that portrayed managing as a lot more messy than planned, described in a New York Times article as ‘calculated chaos’ and ‘controlled disorder’. This was not bad management, it was a necessary way of managing, given the dynamics of the job. Since then, unfortunately, much of this has been sanitised, thanks to the steady replacement of a more grounded management style provided by lofty leadership in many established organisations. This has left no few ‘leaders’ cooped up at the ‘top’, with their eyes fixated on the bottom line. Perhaps, therefore, the greatest danger of the new videoconferencing is that it can exacerbate the very form of leadership that most needs to be challenged.
Don’t get us wrong. The videoconferencing technology is wonderful, in its place, as is every other technology. Use it, but please — not to your heart’s content.
Hannieh Mohammadi is a PhD candidate at Desautels School of Management at McGill University, Canada. She is also a Business Advisor at Emergex SR&ED, a firm specialising in tax credit claims for scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED), e-business (CDAE) and digital media. Hanieh’s passion lies in helping companies innovate in their management practices and break from old-school management frameworks. She has experience delivering strategic insights for leading private sector companies and top think tanks. Hanieh holds an MSc in Strategic Management from Sharif University of Technology, Iran and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard Kennedy School.