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Why Do All These Zoom Calls Make You Feel Like a Zombie?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve attended at least 150 video calls in the last two months, totaling well over 200 hours. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted—more so than if I had met with my colleagues face-to-face.

I decided to look into the mystery behind my fatigue and was surprised to learn there are quite a few reasons—and I’m happy to report solutions as well. Our bleary eyes and foggy brains after hours of video calls really are the result of variety of technical challenges that wreak havoc on our senses.

For instance, you work harder on these video calls because you experience time delays. Your brain skips a beat when it processes the momentary still shots of your colleagues that repeat at random and always during the middle of a sentence. Video calls are also performative. It’s very hard not to be conscious of how we interact on camera. Shakespeare’s line, “All the world’s a stage…” takes on a literal meaning and adds to our desire to perform in meetings.

Condensing what used to be a variety of settings into a single context can be disorienting and taxes the brain. “It doesn’t matter whether you call it a virtual happy hour, it’s a meeting, because mostly we are used to using these tools for work,” says Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead. No matter the type of meeting, we’re also putting more effort behind reading non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. As a result, you can’t relax into the conversation.

While there’s not much we can do about the communication annoyances I’ve mentioned so far, the “Ringlemann Effect” is a hurdle we can leap if we choose to. This effect is based on a study that explains why, when a meeting is larger, each of us feels less responsibility to ensure success. Consequently, it’s easier to put less effort into the group outcome. We think, “No one will notice, right?” The Ringlemann Effect is magnified in virtual meetings.

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The President of Green Room Speakers Sarah Gershman explains that we have five strategies that help overcome the Ringlemann Effect. Here are a few highlights to consider that help us worry less about performative distractions and communication hiccups, and instead, focus on better contributions via video:

Define your value before the meeting.

Decide ahead of time how you’ll contribute. If you don’t have anything to share that’s helpful, figure out exactly what you hope to learn from the video call and ask about it.

Build on previous statements.

Try mitigating disjointed conversations common in these video calls by echoing what’s been said and building on it. In the spirit of “Yes, and…” among improv actors, reiterate what you just heard and add value to the statement.

Connect the dots.

Leading a virtual meeting can be difficult. If over the course of a meeting you’ve heard the same comment consistently from several people, be the one to alert the group. “I’ve heard several people say that…” This helps bring focus back to the meeting.

In the coming months, I think we’re all in for plenty of video calls. I hope you can apply some of Gershman’s advice to help keep you alert during your online gatherings in spite of all the challenges we know exist. In the meantime, I’ll share the next line in Shakespeare’s play: “And all the men and women are merely players.” A fitting description for us all after a long day online. 

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