Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Best way to Avoid Zoom Fatigue is Not Have a Meeting

Jeremy Bailenson is founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab
Jeremy N. Bailenson has written a thought provoking commentary on the causes of fatigue from using video conferencing (2021). He suggested Zoom, and similar video conference systems, cause the user to be tired due to: Eye Gaze at a Close Distance, Cognitive Load, An All Day Mirror, and Reduced Mobility. 

As Professor Bailenson notes, "... being on video-conference all day seems particularly exhausting ...". He suggests this is an area for research by social scientists and technologists.

However, I suggest the primary cause of the exhaustion may simply be from spending so much time in video conferencing. In a typical day pre-COVID19, I might attend a couple of face to face meetings. In between the meetings there was at least some break walking from one meeting to another. When I occasionally have had to attend, or chair, all day meetings, I have found this exhausting. Because it is so easy to schedule and attend video meetings, I have found some days in 2020 I go from meeting to meeting without a break. Some conferences which transitioned to online last year acknowledged this and scheduled breaks.

Eye Gaze at a Close Distance

Professor Bailenson identifies Eye Gaze at a Close Distance as a problem, with a video conferencing like staring at a group of people. I haven't noticed this as a problem, perhaps because I frequently have the screen set to display only the speaker, in a small "thumbnail" window. I do this to save on computer CPU and networking resources, but perhaps it also has benefits for the user. 

There are other video conference systems which try to mimic a meeting more closely. Remo displays a floor plan with people represented by small icons around tables. When you join a table, you see the video from just the few people around the table. Some systems attempt to provide a perspective view, showing people near you larger than those further away.

Cognitive Load

Professor Bailenson suggests that having to consciously attend to one's visual communication creates extra workload. However, in a face to face meeting I am conscious of the need to be visible to others and appear to be paying attention. This has been a problem when I am taking notes on a computer, but those around me think I am not paying attention and are using the computer for an unrelated task.

An All Day Mirror

As Professor Bailenson notes, Zoom's default option is to display the speaker on screen. I find this reassuring, but he suggests it is stressful. Perhaps one reason it doesn't bother me is that most of the time I have the video camera turned off and a stock image (taken from the same perspective, wearing the same clothes, displayed. I do this to reduce bandwidth use and also enable me to take notes without distracting other participants.

Reduced Mobility

Professor Bailenson suggest video conferencing reduces mobility because the participants need to stay in view of the camera. This is not the case. Video conferencing is available on phones as well as laptops and so can be mobile. It may be that we need features in the video system to encourage people to use this feature, or explicitly encourage them to do so.

Avoid Zoom Fatigue: Don't Have a Meeting

It may be that I suffer less Zoom fatigue because I was a user of low bandwidth video conferencing before 2020. As such I treat the video as an adjunct to the audio, and the audio as an adjunct to the text chat, and the text chat as an adjunct to asynchronous communication. 

Those who are used to working primarily via face to face meetings, including those used to teaching this way, find video conferencing the closest alternative available. However, this is not necessarily the best way of working. My approach is to try to get the work done asynchronously, as that save the time and trouble of having a "meeting". 

For ten years I was able to run online courses for university students which had no video or audio. Students never saw or spoke to me face to face or online, but were still able to learn and gave good ratings for my teaching. In decades of helping to run the Australian Computer Society I avoided meetings wherever possible, making decisions out of session.

The best way to avoid Zoom fatigue is not through better software design, but by not having fewer meetings.


Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom FatigueTechnology, Mind, and Behavior2(1).

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