The ubiquitous enterprise communications technology is introducing new health challenges to the world of work. Zoom, the most used, has completely revolutionised homeworking, lowered company overheads, put paid to the “business meeting” travel perk for most executives and reduced global carbon emissions.
Zoom also so dominates the world of virtual communications today that it has become the object of psychological study.
Thank goodness Eric Yuan had the brilliant idea of creating a teleconferencing software company when he did, because life in a pandemic world without Zoom and other similar technology, such as Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex, would be unimaginable.
The Zoom story is inspiring. According to a Bloomberg article last week, Yuan went from being a wannabe Silicon Valley mastermind living in China to founding a Silicon Valley startup, Zoom Video Communications Inc, in 2011. Zoom was trundling along, a neutral platform, not linked to Apple, and offering free meeting access for up to 100 people for 40 minutes, no account needed, from any device – just click on a link – and with the facility to record meetings in audio or/and video, screenshare and generate minutes. In 2017, Zoom was worth US$1billion.
In December 2019, it had ten million users, but five months later, after covid19 had struck, Zoom boasted over 300 million users and its market capitalisation rose to today’s US$32 billion.
A wonderful virtue of the Zoom meetings technology is the changeable backdrop. A user could be on a beach or pose in front of impressive, packed library shelves. The technology means that no one has necessarily to get dressed for work, as long as your torso is appropriately clad – and what a relief that you can interact without a mask.
Yet it is that very interaction that is now causing stress. A study by Stanford University has found that Zoom meetings are causing more exhaustion than old-fashioned face-to-face ones.
Quite apart from the deplorable fact that the time we saved in not travelling to the office has been wiped off by the increased number of meetings that are making us even busier than before, there is now the psychological stress of being in front of a camera, pinned to a chair, all day long.
It is being described as “Zoom overload” by Jeremy Bailenson, who conducted the research. Bailenson found that the effort needed to communicate in a virtual meeting is more demanding on the brain, the psyche and the emotions. He identified four possible reasons.
For a start, there is the issue of the volume at which one speaks – it is 15 per cent higher during a video call than on the phone. Also, we animate our bodies much more, so that we move around in our chairs, nod more than necessary and stare fixedly at the screen’s camera. It means we “physically” work in a tele-meeting, which is exhausting. Many people spend several hours daily, if not continuous ones, in Zoom meetings so the tiring effect is compounded.
Then there is the complicated and important matter of reading body language, which is involuntary, but becomes exceedingly difficult on Zoom. We get much more from that natural and universal way of communicating than via language, so there are heightened stress levels in seeing only half a body and deliberately monitoring one’s own non-verbal behaviour.
Our self-awareness is also heightened by Zoom interaction in front of a computer camera. Balienson likens it to spending hours in an elevator surrounded by mirrors: you engage in constant self-evaluation, which becomes stressful, especially for women, who tend to self-focus more than men, and may become depressed.
Research has been conducted only on short periods of the human gaze, and so the effects of the unusually long and increasingly customary daily exposure to being eyeballed will be the subject of further investigation.
The lift analogy also extends to levels of intimacy in confined public spaces, where we avert our eyes from strangers to avoid the discomfort of compulsory closeness. This is challenged in Zoom meetings, where our eyes are fixed upon others for extended periods and in abnormally close proximity, which causes stress.
Many of these negative consequences of the covid-induced worldwide teleconferencing may be avoided by, for example, turning off your camera for a routine meeting and using only the audio if you already know everyone. We can also distance ourselves from the screen by using a remote keyboard and remaining at least 50 cms away. At 60 cm we are into an intimate range with another person.
However we deal with these realisations, the fact remains that online interaction will be part of our future once covid becomes just another bug that seasonally rears its head. The benefits hugely outweigh the negatives, but we have to become more disciplined in how we use the constantly improving technology. The opportunities to be healthy have to be fought for.
Almost everyone I know complains about the growing number of online meetings and the increased workloads while managing the home and family. The horse has bolted; now we have to catch up.