When did showing up for meetings become so tiresome?
by Alice Bowerman
There are no two ways about it. Zoom and other video conferencing tools have been a lifeline for business operations in the past year.
Allowing us to collaborate through shared screens, see colleagues, and give people around the world a good laugh when getting stuck in cat mode, it’s little wonder that the video conferencing company boasted a revenue which tripled in the first quarter of 2021.
And we soon cottoned on to the ways in which video conferencing could be used outside of work, with invitations to Zoom quizzes, choirs, and virtual drinks flowing freely, as we slunk into a new version of the “catch up” forced upon us by the pandemic.
So why then, did the idea of showing up in a virtual fashion in front of a webcam become so arduous so quickly? It takes a lot more to meet up in person, to coordinate diaries, arrange travel, arrange lunches (don’t forget that Emily from finance is gluten-free and one of the guys coming up is vegan), and fight tooth and nail for the meeting room with the TV set.
It all sounds exhausting, so how is it that we feel equally drained by staying put in front of our screens? Stanford University decided to probe further, and their research showed just how much the natural equilibrium of our social interactions are upset by a way of communicating that was a novelty to many of us in the Spring of 2020. As it turns out, there is far more at play than too much screen time.
Looking at yourself is taxing
It’s not normal to spend a lot of time looking at yourself, and having a mirror held up in front of you each time you partake in a group discussion wouldn’t just wear thin, it would stress you out.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) and the man behind the analysis, pointed to research around the “negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
“Decades of psychology research shows that when you’re looking at yourself we scrutinise ourselves, we evaluate ourselves, and this over time causes stress and negative emotions,” he told BBC Radio 4.
We’re essentially subjecting ourselves to that same kind of taxing self-evaluation, day in day out when we spend a lot of time on video calls, on top of whatever else we need to deliver tough as part of our role.
Problem solved: Save yourself the flattering ring light that takes up room on your desk, or spending time getting “camera-ready”, in favour of the “high self-view” option on Zoom. Your colleagues can still see you, but you won’t have to take a long hard look at yourself every time you go over the weekly report.
Close “contact” can feel intense
This is true at the best of times, but it is magnified, quite literally, during a video conference call. Bailenson likened this effect to holding conversations while close to others in an elevator, something that threw us when they were first invented. Jeff Hancock from Stanford’s Social Media Lab said it was tricky for us to know where to look at first, but noted that lift etiquette is something we’ve now adapted to,
“We had to evolve ways to make it work for us. We’re in that era now with video conferencing, and understanding the mechanisms will help us understand the optimal way to do things for different settings, different organisations and different kinds of meetings,” he said.
Bailenson explains that when we are so close to someone else’s face, even virtually, it puts us in what he describes as a “hyper-aroused” state, which would normally only precede mating or conflict.
Problem solved: Instead of sitting further away from your computer, which might hinder how clearly you can be heard, try making the display screen, and therefore your colleagues' faces, smaller.
You’re restricted in movement
Not so long ago it was suggested that we should get rid of our chairs in meeting rooms or opt for a “walk and talk” to get ideas flowing.
Video conference calls don’t allow us the freedom of movement we’d have while making a call on a mobile phone, or in a meeting room where you might get up to make notes, or reach for the last sandwich. If you have back to back Zoom calls, you have no choice but to stay put for hours on end, unless you make a few tweaks.
Problem solved: Question whether or not a meeting warrants a Zoom call, or whether a phone call would suffice. If there are just two of you, there are ways for you to look at and work on a document simultaneously without sharing your screen, so you can at least move around with a laptop or tablet.
If a video conference call makes the most sense, suggest at the start that people might like to turn off their cameras now and again, especially in a long meeting, so that they can have a stretch, or move away from their desk.
Alternatively, an external camera with a wider view means that you’re less restricted in where you need to station yourself in order to be seen, and so can have a greater range in which to move in.
You’re making up for lost face-to-face time
We may only now appreciate how much easier it can feel to have a conversation with someone in person. There are a multitude of non-verbal cues that we either miss or have to work hard to pick up on when having the same conversation through a computer, and that goes for sending these signals ourselves. You might not come through as clearly on a computer speaker, and your hands, which do a lot of the “legwork” in communicating through gestures, will likely be hidden from view.
So you have to talk louder, nod harder, and assure someone that you’re writing something down and haven’t just fallen asleep. Not to mention the “uhus” and “yeps” of encouragement, which inevitably don’t fall within the natural gaps of someone else’s conversation flow, thanks to delays.
Bailenson refers to these newly-evolved gestures as “perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”
Problem solved: Again, this calls for a little downtime from the camera while remaining on the call through audio, or opting for a phone call instead.
Ultimately, these are all nice-to-have problems in light of the obstacles we would have faced without Zoom and other video conferencing platforms.
While the companies behind them are unlikely to rest on their laurels in developments that will help circumnavigate our sticky and deep-rooted psychological preferences, knowing what small and simple tweaks we can make to get the most out of their products, and why, could be invaluable in the meantime.
Even if that’s questioning whether we’re not, on the odd occasion, just best off picking up the good old smartphone.