Study: Camera Use in Virtual Meetings Leads to Fatigue, Disengagement

Be flexible when setting up rules for videoconferencing

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer November 15, 2021
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tired woman

​Camera on or off? It's one of the requisite decisions that employees make—sometimes several times a day—in the new normal of remote work and virtual meetings.

The transition to video calls has worked well for some, who feel seeing their colleagues virtually offers a sense of social connection and engagement they wouldn't otherwise get working remotely. But the shift has been a challenge for others, who have reported discomfort and fatigue having to sit in place for long periods of time and focus on the detached communication portal in front of them.     

"This is a new skill," said Cali Williams Yost, author, speaker and CEO of New York City-based Flex+Strategy Group. "There was very low adoption of videoconferencing before the pandemic. Facilitating video meetings and participating in them was begun in crisis mode, and what we need to do now is step back. Clearly this will be a part of our communication framework going forward, so employers need to figure out when to best use it."

Another byproduct of the now-ubiquitous virtual meeting is the phenomenon known as "Zoom fatigue": that feeling of being exhausted following a workday of video calls.

New research from a team led by Kristen Shockley, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia in Athens, suggests it may be the camera that is to blame for this specific weariness, and not the meetings themselves.

"We knew people had the perception that Zoom meetings were leading to fatigue, but we didn't know what about those meetings was the problem," Shockley said. "Our study revealed that there's something about the camera being on that causes people to feel drained and lack energy."

Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., believes videoconferencing platforms have design flaws that exhaust the human mind and body. Examples of this include the social anxiety that comes from an intense amount of close-up, unwavering eye contact, even while just listening; the stress of seeing oneself in real time; the lack of physical mobility; and the taxing cognitive load associated with picking up nonverbal signals virtually.     

"One of the biggest issues I'm hearing about is the lack of breaks," Yost said. "That and people getting tired and checking out the longer the meeting goes, as being on camera requires more attention."

Less-engaged employees is exactly what Shockley and her team found after conducting a monthlong field experiment with 100 employees from BroadPath, a Tucson, Ariz., health care services company that had already been working mostly remotely before the pandemic.

The research conclusion: It is more tiring to have your camera on during a virtual meeting, said Allison Gabriel, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a co-author of the study.

"When people had cameras on or were told to keep cameras on, they reported more fatigue than their noncamera-using counterparts," Gabriel said. "And that fatigue correlated to less voice and less engagement during meetings. So, in reality, those who had cameras on were potentially participating less than those not using cameras. This counters the conventional wisdom that cameras are required to be engaged in virtual meetings."

The researchers also found that feelings of discomfort and stress were stronger for women and for newer employees, likely due to self-presentation pressures.

"There's a lot of self-presentation pressure associated with being on camera," Gabriel said. "Women tend to have higher self-presentation costs than men and are likely to feel heightened pressure to demonstrate competence by appearing extra vigilant on camera. We also tend to hold women to higher standards for physical appearance."

Newer employees also feel greater pressure to demonstrate competence and engagement, she said.

The researchers suggested that switching cameras off during meetings can enhance productivity and engagement because employees are better able to focus on the content and less on how they or others look.

That conclusion goes against conventional thinking, however. "I think when the camera is turned off, people will do other things," Yost said. "People will intentionally do other things, like fold laundry. People did that before videoconferencing; they did it during conference calls, too. They'd mute their phone and do other things."  

Shockley said, "We're not advocating for cameras off all the time, but we are advocating for allowing people autonomy and being more strategic in the way that we do meetings with Zoom and other video platforms."

Experts agree that requiring cameras to be on for all meetings is not the way to go, and automatically associating negative assumptions about those who decide to keep their camera off is not fair.

"At the end of the day, we want employees to feel autonomous and supported at work in order to be at their best," Gabriel said. "Having autonomy over using the camera is another step in that direction."

Setting Guidelines

Yost said rules, parameters and norms for different types of virtual meetings should be developed upfront, based on the goal of the meeting.

"Most meetings are recurring," she said. "As a team, you can step back and categorize the protocol for each type of meeting, put guardrails in place and experiment with them."

It should be collaborative, she added. "Those who feel very strongly that they are not comfortable on camera should have the opportunity to bring that up. Others may feel it's important for everyone to be on camera. Find common ground around the best way to communicate with each other."

Simply defaulting to videoconferencing and cameras on for every single meeting is not necessary, experts agree. Yost said she finds video beneficial for smaller meetings and not so much for larger ones, where it's hard to keep track of everyone.  

Experts also advise that managers should turn off cameras when it's not required, or employees will otherwise feel pressure to show their faces.

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