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5 Startling Reasons Why We Won’t Miss Pandemic Videoconferencing

Zoom meeting on computer screen with coffee mug to left
Victoria Boyko
Kevin Howarth, Marketing and Communications Manager

As the pandemic dies down, more people get vaccinated, and social distancing mandates lift, we will find ourselves returning to normal. That means returning to the office, returning to meetings, and returning to business and social events. That also means lessening the amount of time we spend videoconferencing.

Why is that such a relief? Before the pandemic, videoconferencing was more of a luxury or a nice-to-have. We used it if teams worked far apart, if we wanted a fun alternative to a phone call, or if we happened to work away from the office and needed to join an in-person meeting.

With the pandemic, videoconferencing became normalized—used for nearly any and all meetings. Big meetings. Informal meetings. Quick conversations with co-workers. We stared at our computer screens all day, and much of that staring included staring at people in little boxes.

We know videoconferencing exhausted us in weird ways. But why? Science has some answers, and the answers may surprise you. The following five reasons for our videoconferencing fatigue show that our brains were literally not wired for such times.

1. Looking at yourself talking on your computer screen tires out your brain.

In face-to-face meetings, we focus on other people, what we want to say, and room ambiance. It’s not natural to watch ourselves talking during every meeting with people. We are self-conscious by nature and often don’t like looking at ourselves for extended periods of time. Unless we’re quite egocentric, we don’t stare at ourselves in a mirror for an hour straight!

According to Stanford University, “[Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL)] cited studies showing that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day. ‘It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.’”

2. The activity of videoconferencing is harder on the brain than in-person meetings.

Meeting with people in person is more natural, and we are biologically hardwired for such activity. With videoconferencing, we are meeting with people using an unnatural medium. We are still receiving stimuli, but it is different. The computer presents a sensory distance between us and the other person, and technological limitations add video glitches—such as freezing and hiccups—that confuse our brain.

According to Healthline, “You have to work harder to read people’s facial expressions and decode tone through a computer screen. Even though it isn’t something you consciously realize, it takes more effort to have conversations through [videoconferencing] than it does in real life. […] As far as technology has come, there’s also still a slight delay for verbal responses during virtual connections. This can strain your ability to interpret the words of the person you’re talking with.”

3. Videoconferencing offers you the ease and temptation to multitask.

We’re all guilty. While on a videoconferencing meeting, you’ve answered an email, browsed the internet, or worked on something unrelated to the meeting. After all, no one can see you. However, the problem is the act of multitasking, not the morality behind doing so.

When we’re in an in-person meeting, because of behavioral norms we tend to focus on the people talking. Online, it’s so easy to do other things during a portion of a meeting where others are talking and you’re not participating. That multitasking means you’re distracted, thinking about 10 things at once, and tiring your brain.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “It’s easy to think that you can use the opportunity to do more in less time, but research shows that trying to do multiple things at once cuts into performance. Because you have to turn certain parts of your brain off and on for different types of work, switching between tasks can cost you as much as 40 percent of your productive time.”

4. It’s unnatural to stare at a bunch of people in boxes lined up in front of you.

When you’re having a videoconferencing meeting with a lot of people, you might get overwhelmed at seeing 10 or 20 people at once, all in little boxes, all staring at you. Just like a normal in-person meeting, right? Wrong! It’s laughable how unnatural it is. Unless you’re the speaker on stage, you never have rows of people staring at you. Instead, you will sit around a meeting table or face the front of the room. When a person is talking, everyone looks at them during the duration of their speaking—and not at you for the entire meeting.

According to National Geographic, “Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long. Multi-person screens magnify this exhausting problem. Gallery view—where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style—challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.”

5. Silence is deadly.

With in-person meetings, a room can become silent but it’s never really silent. People shift their bodies. You hear office noise from outside the room. And people constantly look at each other, whispering or sharing non-verbal cues. With videoconferencing, most ambient sound is muted, pauses feel much longer, non-verbal cues are nearly non-existent (because everyone is staring at you), and waiting around for people to join a meeting can become very awkward. This adds to the stress and weariness of videoconferencing calls as we seek to fill the silence.

According to TED, “Silence in real-life conversation is important and creates a natural rhythm. But in a video call, silence can make you anxious. Even a 1.2 second delay in responding online made people perceive the person talking as less friendly or focused. In addition, frustration with people turning their microphones on and off, lagging connections, and background noise mean the meeting rarely flows as smoothly.”

As you can see, you’re not alone if you’ve been feeling videoconferencing fatigue. Luckily, more in-person meetings means less videoconferencing. But videoconferencing will be around to stay, even after the pandemic. Knowing that fact, you can anticipate some of these challenges in the future and hopefully find workarounds that make videoconferencing less exhausting.