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2020 has been the year of remote everything. Remote working, remote networking, remote socializing. The platform facilitating this remote living has chiefly been Zoom. (Hence Zoom stocks are up 600% this year.) However, heavy Zoom usage has created a chronic, global wave of Zoom fatigue. 

What is Zoom fatigue? It is a special form of exhaustion and isolation that arises after you hundreds of hours of video meetings in a month. Zoom fatigue has very real causes, with their basis in the nature of human cognition. 

Overcoming Zoom fatigue is possible. However, it will require re-humanizing online encounters by embracing richer digital platforms that better replicate the complexities and nuances of human communication.

Zoom Fatigue: A Pandemic Affliction

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people have been on video calls more than ever before. A majority of these calls have taken place via Zoom. Zoom’s recent usage statistics reveal that the platform now has 300 million daily meeting participants, a 30x increase on Zoom’s December 2019 numbers.

Personal calls, business meetings, and online conferences via the popular video communication platform have spiked over the last few months, a new normal stemming from the economic disruptions and lockdowns caused by COVID-19. But while Zoom provides a reliable and convenient technology for people to connect, many people are finding the constant Zooming to be very draining. So much so that Zoom fatigue is now a recognized phenomenon.

What is Zoom fatigue? According to the Psychiatric Times,  “Zoom fatigue” refers to a feeling or state of tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with the extended use of Zoom and other digital communication platforms. Zoom fatigue is real, as attested to by the millions of people complaining about it. Its causes are rooted in the two-dimensional nature of Zoom interactions, and the way those interactions lack crucial features of what humans crave in encounters with others.

Unnatural, Shallow Connection Drives Zoom Fatigue

Humans evolved engaging exclusively in face-to-face communications. We are a social species, and complex interpersonal interactions were key to our success in our ancestral enroulement. A large amount of human cognition, language, facial anatomy and more is a result of the primacy of face-to-face communication in our history.

In-person, real-time interaction is preserved in the traditional workplace. Here, when people meet with others, they are supplied with a wealth of visual cues, emotional indicators, and body language signals that enable us to undertake meaningful conversations. 

In a Zoom call, almost every one of these rich interpersonal cues and signals is lacking. Here’s Laura Dudley, an associate clinical professor and director of the applied behavior analysis programs at Northeastern University:

“Many of the nonverbal cues that we typically rely upon during in-person conversations—eye contact, subtle shifts that indicate someone is about to speak—are out the window,” says Laura Dudley, an associate clinical professor and director of the applied behavior analysis programs at Northeastern University.

Eye contact is a major challenge. In real conversation, it is crucial. But on Zoom, you have to look at your camera to give it, and look at their video feed on the screen to receive it. As Dudley goes on:

“You might find yourself toggling back and forth between your webcam and the other person, but this is not the same as sustained, joint eye contact between two people… And keep in mind that the other person is probably doing the same toggling.”

Zoom fatigue is the result of this flat, static, 2D environment where we have to exert more effort to absorb non-verbal cues that should come naturally. Eye contact, facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, body language; all of these become an effort to process. 

Silence also becomes a problem. Silence is an important component in human communication. Depending on the context, it can be construed as silent assent, a patient waiting for more information, or a signal to terminate interaction. The same can’t be said in a Zoom meeting. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you become anxious about the technology.” says Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.

Contrary to real life, on Zoom, we are forced to sit static in a gallery of faces, battling with eye contact, confronted constantly by our own self staring back at us. It’s unnatural, draining, and surreal.

How Can Digital Conversations Be Made More Human?

Meeting and networking in a digital space is not going anywhere. Even when COVID-19 is eventually overcome with vaccines, the world of work has changed forever. From now on, we will encounter our colleagues in an online space at least as much as we encounter them in an in-person space. 

With this in mind, how can people and businesses eradicate Zoom fatigue and optimize online encounters? Using technologies and platforms that conjure the full richness of human interaction.

The key technology here is extended reality (XR). XR is what will allow companies to offer their staff truly immersive experiences. XR is a fast-growing market, with a current value of $18.8 billion (compared to $10.5 billion for 2019). In one study, employees who underwent training and development sessions via VR registered 75% retention, compared to a rate of 10% with conventional methods. Walmart enjoyed 80% savings in training time by utilizing XR to prepare their store managers and personnel for Black Friday.

A key reason for the rise of XR is its capacity to offer deeper, richer forms of interpersonal experience. 

Take an XR technology like Vatom’s Spatial Web. The Spatial Web allows users to replicate an office environment in full 3D. Here, participants can enter in a fully instantiated, digital avatar form. They are offered a true feeling of being there, even as they tune in from a remote location.

In an XR environment like the Spatial Web, rather than staring at a static gallery of faces for hours at a time, participants are free to roam in a rich, open space. They can see others, and interact when they want, but participants get far more than a video feed of one another’s faces. They can move. They can emote. They can engage with objects. 

A setting like this can vanquish Zoom fatigue by complexifying the visual and interpersonal experience. First-person and aerial POVs can offer a seamless and immersive experience for every participant, empowering them to engage and interact with each other in novel ways. The layouts of the 3D environment can be tailored to closely recreate actual office settings, adding a realism and physical simulation that can never be achieved in a Zoom call.

Zoom fatigue is real. Businesses can start to overcome it by embracing XR technologies that do a better job of mimicking real, in-person human interaction. The alternative – let employees feel drained and disconnected by endless Zoom calls – is a bad tactic that will look worse and worse as the months go by.

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