Online conferences and in-person meetings are fundamentally different from one another.
Working from home has transformed from a highly sought-after job perk to a bottom-line expectation.
Employees who used to travel from meeting to meeting are now relying on video conferencing technology to interface with customers, vendors, and team members. Free from the hassle of traffic and interoffice travel, these people are filling their schedules with back-to-back meetings supported by digital technology.
Until they burn out.
It turns out that scheduling back-to-back virtual meetings all day actually reduces productivity. This is true even for people whose pre-pandemic workday involved hours of back-to-back meetings.
Employers everywhere are starting to ask, “What’s the difference between video conferencing and in-person meetings?”
It turns out there’s plenty different. Employees whose jobs depend on productive meetings need to treat online meetings differently than in-person ones. For many businesses, preventing video conferencing fatigue is the best way to mitigate the risk of workplace burnout.
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What is Video Conferencing Fatigue?
Video conferencing fatigue, also called virtual communication fatigue can drag productivity down for entire teams. It is caused by prolonged, excessive use of platforms. This kind of fatigue presents itself in several ways:
- Lack of Focus.
- Chronic Irritability and Frustration.
- Reduced Input.
- Headaches and Migraines.
Each of these symptoms can take a serious toll on anyone’s quality of life, and they will rapidly decrease the productivity of teams that rely on digital meetings and video conferences. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to combat video conferencing fatigue the moment it starts setting in.
1. Lack of Focus: Signs and Solutions
People lose focus in real-life meetings, too. But in a digital environment, it becomes a much more difficult problem to deal with.
In the office, it’s relatively easy for someone to catch up after losing focus for a moment. At any given moment, there are numerous side-conversations going on, and ample opportunity to communicate contextual clues silently.
In the digital environment, getting back on track after a momentary lapse in focus is hard to do. The more it happens, the harder it becomes to remain focused. In the end, it becomes a cyclical, self-reinforcing problem.
The digital medium adds additional layers of complexity to the problem. In a real-life meeting, it’s perfectly acceptable to look out the window for a few moments to gather your thoughts. In a digital video conference, looking anywhere other than at the screen indicates a lack of interest.
This is an especially tough problem for employees who need to interact with customers. Every customer believes (rightfully) that they deserve your absolute and undivided attention. They don’t appreciate companies that can’t deliver.
There are several things that employers can do about team members who appear to be losing focus during digital meetings:
- Keep Meetings Organized to Schedule. The better organized your meetings are, the easier it will be for your team members to balance and prioritize their attention to them. It’s important to accept that not every attendee needs to pay attention to every second of every meeting. Schedule presentations in a way that allows people to organize their time around the subjects being discussed – rather than letting meetings dictate their schedules to them.
- Enable Closed Captions. Some people have a much easier time reading than listening. With the right video conferencing software, you can enable real-time closed captioning during digital meetings. Giving attendees the ability to turn off their sound and read the discussion in real-time can offer much-needed breathing room for meeting-heavy enterprises.
- Include Virtual Time Off. Employees who have to travel from meeting to meeting throughout the day get to enjoy small mini-breaks in between meetings. Whether it’s a quick coffee in the break room or a drive from one office to another, the day is essentially paced by the time between meetings. Schedule meetings with some downtime between them, and don’t be afraid to take a break right in the middle of longer meetings, if necessary.
- Allow Attendees to Block Cameras. For meeting attendees, seeing the speaker’s face helps improve focus. Seeing their own face, on the other hand, is a distraction. It’s not something that adds value to the meeting experience. Encourage meeting attendees to block their cameras when not speaking, and try focusing more on screen-shared content using an extension like RecTrace.
2. Chronic Irritability: Signs and Solutions
In-person meetings are relatively simple operations. You get everyone into a room, have the host present the subject, and then start discussing it. Unforeseen complications are rare, beyond the occasional projector mishap.
The digital meeting environment is significantly more complex. Network glitches, dropped connections, spotty Wi-Fi, and badly timed software updates can all get in the way of an online conference.
To make matters worse, many of these problems are highly technical in nature. The average non-IT office employee simply doesn’t have the expertise to troubleshoot the dreaded, “Please check your network connection” error message.
Technical problems are among the leading causes of workplace burnout in the digital office. Even something as simple as having to check your microphone by asking other attendees if they can hear you gets annoying when you have to do it a dozen times per day.
This kind of irritability often remains hidden for a long time. Nobody wants to be unpleasant, so they bottle in their frustrations and neglect to communicate them until some minor inconvenience makes them blow up. It happens all the time, but there are a few things that you can do to mitigate the risk:
- Invest In Video Conferencing Infrastructure. Yes, there are plenty of free video conferencing software solutions out there, but sticking to the free version may end up costing you more than a simple subscription would. Purpose-built video conferencing solutions with industry-specific integrations, like RingCentral Meetings, can significantly reduce the technical burden of managing online meetings for your organization.
- Learn to Handle Silent Spells. In a real-life conversation, a few seconds of silence is rarely problematic. In an online meeting, it can make people agitated. Many attendees will begin to suspect that their connection has timed out. Some will simply feel uncomfortable. Don’t let silence ruin your meetings – use some gentle humor to break it, or move on to a different subject. Releasing anxiety will prevent it from building up over time.
- Record Meetings. For some people, the fact that the online meeting format punishes inattention is a cause for frustration. Attendees may feel like they have to wait through presentations that don’t impact them in order to get to the part of the meeting that they need. For these attendees, having access to a recorded copy of the meeting after the fact can be a huge stress-reliever.
- Establish a Notification Triage. Outside the meeting, life goes on. Attendees who are bombarded with notifications, chats, and emails will feel compelled to divert their attention from the meeting, potentially losing focus and becoming irritated as a result. Managers who establish a stable set of messaging priorities – meetings first, quick questions via messenger or Slack, and more complex issues via email, for example – can help make in-meeting notifications seem less overwhelming.
3. Reduced Input: Signs and Solutions
Another way communication fatigue can set in is through reduced participation in digital meetings and events. Some people will respond to the unique pressures of maintaining focus in an online environment by simply becoming passive.
They will say less, offer fewer opinions, and generally let the meeting pass by with as little participation as possible. From a managerial and quality-of-life perspective, this is problematic.
It’s difficult to “pass the baton” in a digital environment. In a brick-and-mortar meeting room, it’s easy to shift attention between facilitators and attendees. The moment a speaker looks at someone else, everyone else in the room will shift their attention to that person. Most people will understand the social cue and respond appropriately.
In the digital environment, the only way to do this is by calling out attendees by name. The problem with this approach is that the initiative to speak is still controlled by the current speaker – it’s not easy to interrupt to ask a question, even if asking that question will improve the value of the meeting for everyone involved.
There are a few things that organizations can do to improve meeting input from participants. Having more active meeting attendees will result in far fewer cases of workplace burnout:
- Make Meetings Smaller. One of the easiest ways to encourage people to participate in meetings is to limit the size of the meeting. Studies have shown that the most effective meetings have less than 10 participants. It’s hard to encourage people to contribute when they feel like just another face in the crowd.
- Break Large Meetings Into Smaller Groups. Sometimes you have to hold a large meeting, because the subject impacts a large number of people. You can still organize your larger meetings better than simply throwing 100 people into a single conference call. Breaking large meetings up into small groups can allow facilitators to address team members’ concerns on a more personal level.
- Use Expert Access to Make Meetings More Dynamic. What happens when a meeting attendee asks a question the facilitator doesn’t know the answer too? Instead of simply deflecting, you can implement Collaborative Contact technology to immediately call a subject matter expert into the meeting. This allows facilitators to integrate video conferencing meetings with technical support, allowing for instant responses to attendees’ questions.
- Integrate Direct Messaging via Text. Some people simply don’t want to speak up. Meeting hosts who give their attendees the ability to ask questions and contribute through text can help level the playing field between people who feel comfortable changing the course of the meeting and those who don’t. Integrating chat and productivity app support can help bring quiet users into the action.
4. Headaches, Migraines and Sore Eyes: Signs and Solutions
In most cases, when meeting attendees start getting headaches, it’s a sign that their eyes are getting sore. You may hear people complaining of an irritating, dry-eyed sensation immediately after closing a video call. This discomfort can worsen over time, leading to painful headaches, migraines, and even eye conditions.
Computer Vision Syndrome is often the culprit. Digital eye strain can cause a wide range of problems in people who have to focus intently on a screen for hours at a time. In the past, this condition was largely limited to programmers and other office employees who spent most of their time behind a screen. Now it is becoming commonplace at every level of the organization.
In normal conditions, the average person blinks 12 times per minute. When using a computer, that number drops to five times per minute. The discomfort of dry eyes can lead to blurry vision, which then confuses the brain – especially as it tries to decipher small text on a web browser – creating the perfect conditions for a bad headache.
These problems can exacerbate communication fatigue for people who have to attend digital meetings all day. Consider implementing some of the following solutions for your meeting facilitators and attendees:
- Use the 20-20-20 Method. Some optometrists opt for what’s called the 20-20-20 method: Take a 20-second break every 20 minutes and focus on something 20 feet away. This lets your eyes “reset” in a way that will prevent overstraining one of the human body’s most delicate organs.
- Enable Night Light Mode. All Windows 10 computers now come with a Night Light mode, which filters out blue light from the display. This is designed to prevent the display’s light from disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm, but it also makes it much easier on the eyes. You can safely leave Night Light mode on all day.
- Encourage Users to Take Screen Breaks. These problems affect different people in different ways, and nobody is immune. Meeting facilitators and attendees are equally susceptible. It’s good company policy to let meeting attendees periodically switch off their screens and listen in for a few minutes. If you’re recording the meeting, they will be able to go back and review any visual data they might have missed later on. A well-rested employee is more creative and engaged.
Make Collaborative Video Conferencing Software the Core Of Your Strategy
Choosing the right communication tools will significantly shape your ability to collaborate effectively. Many of the items of advice listed above focus on how innovative video conferencing features can help reduce workplace burnout, improve the focus of meeting attendees, and mitigate some of the most common problems video meeting hosts face. The more engaging your meetings are, the more productive your employees and team members will be.
Originally published Jun 08, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022