In the age of lockdown, Zoom has been a lifesaver for keeping in touch with friends and colleagues, but don’t expect to replicate ‘common-place’ meetings. Given that virtual work meetings look as though they’re going to be with us for some time to come, it might be worth considering what we can do to make ‘zooming’ (other platforms are available) as stress-free and productive as possible.
From wondering how we could come together apart, we have reached a stage where clicking on zoom invitations, muting ourselves when not speaking, live chats to one or many, have all become second nature. So – a work meeting in your diary scheduled pre-lockdown? No problem: just run it via Zoom, Google hangouts, Microsoft teams, or one of a myriad of other offerings. Simples.
Following the euphoria at finding a platform which seems to fill at least a little of the chasm left by social distancing (or more accurately, social spacing) some of us are now suffering from what I’ve just discovered from reading the National Geographic is known as ‘zoom fatigue’. The article outlines some of the reasons why you could find virtual interaction more tiring than you might expect. I’ve been doing a little research of my own, and considering how we might respond to, and handle, the extra challenge posed by operating in a virtual world.
First of all, anxiety levels: they’re heightened in the current environment (when else have we been given a daily update on illness and death?) Uncertainty and existential angst are great breeders of anxiety. Then, when did you ever go to a meeting in the old world and wonder whether you’d be able to open the door, see the other people in the room, concern yourself with the state of your home, or worry that you would be invisible?
When you join a group in a space for the first time, you observe how others behave and take your cue from them. So what happens when the social norms of the face-to-face group are transported into a different space? Have we talked about how we want to be together, and what the expectations are? No? More uncertainty. Is everyone equally familiar with the platform, and if not, what support might be given BEFORE the meeting? (Having everyone giving you instructions at the same time concerning what you should do to unmute yourself, for example, is as confusing as driving a car with two navigators – more anxiety).
We are social animals and crave human interaction. When we interact online we miss the ‘gathering chatter’ we generally have when we seat ourselves next to someone in a room. It helps us to tune in to the people round the room, and to change gear from wherever we’ve been, to focus on the matter in hand. That can’t happen in an online group in the same way, because only one person can be heard at a time; everyone tunes in to the same conversation. The alternative – using the chat box to connect with individuals – is a distraction from greeting others as they arrive. Other hazards are that everyone may hear the click-clacking of your keyboard, and there’s always the danger of sending a personal message to everyone, or to the wrong person, with undesirable results.
Human touch – a hug or a handshake – encourages the production of oxytocin, a hormone which stimulates positive social connections. That’s missing in the virtual world. Smiling helps social interaction. With a large number of people on the screen at once, that’s hard to discern. The National Geographic article points to the extra energy we spend trying to compensate for the non-verbal clues we’re used to being able to depend on to gauge what others are thinking and feeling. Something else that is curtailed in the virtual world is resonance ‘a felt sense of energy, rhythm, or intuitive knowing that occurs in a group of human beings and positively affects the way they interact toward a common purpose’. You’ll know the feeling of instant connection when you meet someone for the first time and intuitively feel that you can trust them: that’s resonance in operation. Online meetings require more concentration: thus they’re more tiring.
If these aspects of virtual professional life make meetings more difficult, is there anything we can do to minimise the additional stress?
- Be disciplined – and encourage others to be disciplined – concerning how many zoom meetings you attend or schedule in a day. I am relatively used to virtual coaching, but on the day when I coached two clients, both of whom were in a state of high emotional distress, I knew I’d stretched myself too far.
- Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Are you sure you need to meet? Be clear about the purpose of the meeting, and don’t assume everyone knows what it is. Priya Parker, author The Art of Gathering talked in a recent TED interview of considering ‘What is the need for this community at this time?’ Is it a meeting, or is it something else? Does everyone need to be there for all of it? Is it largely an update meeting (in which case, would asynchronous interaction work better)? Are you expecting decisions to be made after discussion? How much time has everyone for the meeting? Have you signalled in advance when the meeting will end? As it is more tiring to meet in the virtual world, consider whether it’s right to reduce the duration from what you might expect in the real world.
- How do we feel about letting people into our homes? Has everyone a similarly appropriate space? Again, Priya Parker talks about the difference between choosing to share something about your home environment with work colleagues, and being forced to. Quite apart from the distraction provided by seeing into individuals’ homes, is it better for the group if everyone chooses to display the same virtual background? Might an audio only meeting be preferable? Many years ago I was having an initial meeting with a woman who – from the waist up, anyway – was dressed for business. I was somewhat distracted by a man in a bathrobe shambling through her kitchen, showing considerable interest in what was on her screen.
- Take time to review a) the technology and b) the process. How did the technology work for everyone? Was there unwanted background noise? Did you gain permission up-front to mute everyone if needed? What was the quality of video and audio for everyone? If not good, are there settings that can be changed to help next time? And b) the process: I confess I have a bit of a thing about this, even in the non-virtual world. We make the decisions and feel we’ve done the job. What about how we interacted? Were we living our values? Did everyone have an opportunity to contribute? Did everyone feel heard? What was the effect of distance?
- If you are chairing the meeting, ask someone else to keep an eye out for people who wish to speak. Participants can’t catch your eye, and you can easily miss a virtual raised hand or message in the chat box while also trying to gauge others’ responses to what you are saying. Is it better to be able to see everyone, to see the speaker only, or should you change views at different times during the meeting?
- Provide space at the outset for people to alert others to any particular issues (including such things as, ‘I have to leave at a particular time’ ‘I’m expecting a phone call: forgive me, I’ll walk away to take it’ or even ‘I’m at home on my own with the children and might be a little distracted’ evident in the exchange below)
- In the same vein, on leaving a meeting, make sure you really have disconnected from the group before you speak to anyone else. Give yourself some space at the end of a meeting before rushing on to the next job. In a traditional setting, the journey back to your own desk (whether short or long) provides a break which allows you to turn off and re-focus. That doesn’t happen if you remain in front of your computer and just keep on keeping on.
- Cut everyone some slack. These are difficult times and we’re having to deal with a great many changes. Don’t expect people (including yourself) to be as productive as they would be in the non-virtual world.