Videoconferencing tools were a sort of godsend when COVID-19 emptied out workplaces everywhere this past March.
The coronavirus quickly made clear that being around the office wasn’t going to be an option for a while. Videoconferencing platforms enabled employees to carry on with meetings, and to keep communicating and collaborating with each other on a virtual basis.
Maintaining some kind of connection to co-workers and clients, even if it’s strictly through a laptop screen, is obviously important to employee well-being. And a lot of tasks can’t get done when workers are toiling away in isolation. But it was inevitable that all these virtual meetings would at some point start to overwhelm employees.
Some recent data suggests that video overload is indeed a very real issue.
A November 2020 survey from Robert Half found 76% of over 1,000 employees saying they participate in virtual meetings. Among this group, 30% reported spending at least one-third of their workday on camera with business contacts and colleagues.
And, not surprisingly, the number of virtual meetings started to spike when virtual meetings were suddenly the only way to gather groups of employees.
Researchers at Harvard Business School, for example, analyzed the emails and meetings of 3.1 million individuals in 16 global cities, and found that employees are attending 13% more meetings during the pandemic.
“There is a general sense that we never stop being in front of Zoom or interacting,” said study co-author Raffaella Sadun, a professor of business administration in the Harvard Business School Strategy Unit, in a statement. “It’s very taxing, to be honest.”
A fair number of employees seem to agree with Sadun’s blunt assessment.
In the Robert Half poll, 38% of respondents said they’ve experienced video call fatigue since the start of the pandemic. A quarter of respondents said they find virtual meetings “inefficient and exhausting,” and that they actually prefer to communicate via other channels like email or phone.
Companies are apparently picking up on employees’ weariness with video and are reacting accordingly.
Genentech Inc., for example, has taken a series of small steps designed to give employees a respite from video interactions, said Ivor Solomon, the San Francisco-based biotechnology company’s head of total rewards.
For example, Genentech has declared a two-hour block each day — 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. PST — a “no meeting zone.” In addition, each function within the company has chosen a day each month — either a Monday or a Friday — during which no meetings are held, and internal emails are limited.
“The purpose is to give employees time to do some heads-down work, catch up on emails, do some personal development, or take a day or two of vacation without feeling like they’re falling behind when they are not at work,” said Solomon, “and then get stressed out because of that.”
Employees everywhere are working harder and, in many cases, as part of leaner teams, said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half.
“Leaders understand they must do everything in their power to keep burnout at bay, and many managers and businesses are encouraging extreme prioritization at this time. And one thing that can be contributing to burnout is meetings.”
When the coronavirus pandemic began, “video became such a wonderful way to communicate with colleagues,” McDonald continued. “But now, many people are many months into this routine and have created some semblance of normalcy in this new way of working.”
One of the easiest ways to help workers alleviate video call fatigue is by encouraging them to carefully and critically assess their calendars, he said. In some situations, adding another virtual meeting might not be necessary.
“Any recurring meetings or long-standing check-in calls that could potentially accomplish the same goal with a weekly email that provides an update should be removed from the calendar. Understand the difference between doing what’s necessary versus just doing what you’ve always done.”
Managers should also make sure that team members feel comfortable enough to decline a meeting where they don’t feel they’re making a vital contribution or gaining critical information that will help them perform their jobs, said McDonald.
“Make sure your team knows you support their need to protect their time. [And] take the ambiguity out of whether a meeting will be on video. You can write it in the agenda or meeting invite — e.g., no camera or video necessary — especially if you have a larger call.
“People often ‘get ready’ for video calls, be it cleaning their office space, quieting other members of their household or changing into a more professional outfit. So, if you take any uncertainty out of it early, people will feel prepared for what’s coming.”
About the Author
Mark McGraw is managing editor of Workspan.