The struggle with Zoom fatigue is real. It’s so real that Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser has banned internal Zoom meetings on Fridays in an effort to combat it.
“The blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being,” she said in a March company memo. “When our work regularly spills over into nights, very early mornings and weekends, it can prevent us from recharging fully, and that isn’t good for you nor, ultimately, for Citi.”
Videoconferencing has become invaluable during the pandemic, allowing businesses and organizations to keep going at full speed as employees work from home. But companies like Citigroup are now dealing with the unintended consequence of Zoom fatigue, which scientists describe as the taxing effect that constant videoconferencing has on the body and the brain. Wharton management professor Iwan Barankay said company leaders must improve the culture around video meetings because they are here to stay, regardless of whether employees physically return to the office.
“I can come up with a lot of examples where Zoom has been great and will remain a part of our work lives. What we have to understand is how to create an environment for people where they can be engaged and happy in the workplace,” he said during an interview on Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
What’s Wrong with Zoom?
Barankay greeted Citigroup’s announcement with skepticism, saying it isn’t clear if the decision gets at the root of the fatigue problem or merely alleviates a symptom. Citigroup employees still have to keep video appointments with clients, and they may simply cram more meetings into the other days of the week to keep on top of their tasks. In that case, Zoom-free Fridays may do little to solve the problem, he said.
“Because it is used for so many things and so pervasively, I think it is good to think about what causes people to not like [videoconferencing] or what causes people to not feel productive or happy in the workplace, especially now,” he said.
Barankay said videoconferencing has replaced personal engagement, which is one of the biggest sources of creativity and innovation in an office setting. With video, there are no chance encounters, casual conversations, or other interactions that can spark ideas. It’s also harder for employees to feel connected to each other or to a larger mission when all their conversations are on screen.
“People have to hop off one Zoom meeting and hop on to the next one. They don’t really have room to breathe, to then become really settled and engaged with the meeting,” he said.
Barankay’s point is underscored by new research into Zoom fatigue. According to some studies, the core dilemma in videoconferencing is the trade-off between risk and reward. In-person social interactions are associated with reward, affecting the neurological pathways in the brain that boost alertness. But virtual interactions require greater cognitive and physical effort, which can lead to stress.
Barankay called out another inherent problem with video meetings: Workplace hierarchy often means the manager talks while employees passively listen.
“When you have a meeting where somebody talks for three minutes and you can’t participate, people just switch off,” he noted.
Working from home has been a game-changer during the pandemic, but the benefits are not evenly distributed. It’s challenging for employees who live in small spaces or in households with other family members who are also working from home. It’s also tough for working parents who don’t have child care. Some employees find themselves shifting work to nighttime hours when the house is quiet, while others report working continuously because the boundaries between work and home life have been erased.
“When you have meeting where somebody talks for three minutes and you can’t participate, people just switch off.” –Iwan Barankay
“Companies now have to be smart about how to recreate social interactions because people feel isolated at home,” Barankay said. “They literally lack not a work-life balance, but a life-work balance. They want to be effective and work well in the company; instead, they’re at home where they are interrupted all the time, and where they can’t really be part of the [work] community where they have a voice and explore new ideas.”
Are Companies Paying Attention to Burnout?
Companies may be lulled into a false sense of worker satisfaction during the pandemic because fewer employees are leaving their positions during this period of economic uncertainty. But that is going to change, warns Barankay. Firms need to be careful not to draw conclusions about their current turnover data, especially on high-talent, high-value employees.
“As the economy starts to get more vibrant again, I think we’ll see a lot of movement of people across companies,” he said.
According to Barankay, the post-pandemic workplace will be hybrid. Businesses likely will offer some combination of remote and in-person work. That kind of flexibility makes it even more imperative for managers to improve Zoom culture, Barankay said, so that remote workers aren’t left out.
“What I hope companies are smart about is to allow people access back to the company in a safe way, but continue to retain the flexibility that working from home can offer and have more of a hybrid culture,” he said. “I believe many companies that will do well in the recovery will be those that will cultivate and improve that hybrid culture.”