A Year in Review: Zooming Through Time and Space

March 2, 2020: I finished a Radical Candor keynote at the airport hotel in Newark, NJ; but instead of going to Miami to deliver another keynote, I was rerouted back home to Los Angeles. I haven’t been on a plane since. Still, I’ve had the good fortune to work with dozens and dozens of teams, and thousands of people around the world, as we, like so many organizations, shifted to virtual training.

Much like Kleenex and Xerox, a feature of Zoom’s success has been“genericization;” so while there are other tools like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, I’ll refer to Zoom (while I wonder if X and Z are the hidden key to success). 

Virtual events meant that we could bring together teams that previously, due to cost or geography, would not have been able to train together. Thanks to Zoom, we’ve created workshops that not only teach the concepts of Radical Candor, but also leverage practice periods, which we weren’t able to do in one-day live events.

And it’s also expanded perspective-sharing; rather than only having time to hear from one or two people in a live exercise debrief, everyone can share simultaneously via virtual chat or Mentimeter, a presentation tool that allows workshop participants to interact in real time.

Zoom fatigue

On a personal level, my mom, sisters and I were able to have a beautiful Zoom Memorial Service for my dad, who passed away at the end of 2020. Like so many others who lost loved ones during COVID, we weren’t able to gather in person to honor his life. I remain amazed, four months later, how a Zoom service could nurture connection, community and storytelling. 

The Rabbi noted that one way to acknowledge what someone shared during the service was to touch your hand to your heart after they spoke; I’ve taken that small yet mighty instruction (dare I say) to heart in certain settings. While I do enjoy a reaction emoji 🎊; I have found that my actual hand on my actual heart not only shows my appreciation for the other person, it gives me the gift of connecting back to my body.

The Rabbi also mentioned that feelings may arise when clicking “End Meeting” after a memorial service. And I did indeed experience: the juxtaposition of a heart-full of connection and gratitude for everyone who came together to honor my Dad; and then, “End Meeting,” there I am, transported back into the chair I’ve been sitting in the whole time, 3,000 miles away from my family.

Also, a feeling of peace, knowing that all who attended that service took with them an invitation of what a life well-lived and well-loved could look like. 

ZOOM FATIGUE: WHAT’S GOING ON?

Whether we call it languishing or burnout, we’re exhausted —  as individuals, families, and organizations building and flying the plane at the same time. While we fly through turbulence including a pandemic, systemic injustice, exponential uncertainty, and collective grief — for now, let’s focus on Zoom fatigue and what we can do about it.

While we’re flying this proverbial plane through turbulence including a pandemic, systemic injustice, exponential uncertainty, and collective grief — for now, let’s focus on Zoom fatigue and what we can do about it. 

Stanford communication professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, published what is the first peer-reviewed article deconstructing Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. According to Bailenson, there are four primary reasons why Zoom is so damned exhausting: 

  1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze;
  2. Cognitive load;
  3. Increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself; and 
  4. Constraints on physical mobility.

    1. I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW (THE PAIN HAS GONE)

Since the pandemic started, I’ve had to get two different eyeglasses prescriptions, thanks to a heady mix of aging and excessive screen time. Inspired by the successes of my colleagues, I had a brief romance with a standing desk; but, like the best of failed relationships, I found myself several hundred dollars lighter, unable to move my neck and eventually lying down on the proverbial couch at a doctor’s office.

The doctor told me that my body was doing everything it could to optimize for vision. What did he mean? When I’m leading a workshop, I am doing my best to have my eyes look directly in the camera (at the top of my monitor), while also looking at the people in the group (not exactly the same place as the camera), while also sharing a presentation, while also reading chat, while also speaking and listening. Rinse and repeat.

Apparently, I can do almost all of those things at the same time, except sit in a relaxed posture with a soft gaze. For much of 2020, the only thing that moved during the day was my neck, jutting in and out to the screen like a snapping turtle prowling for pollywogs. (I didn’t know what a pollywog was, just liked how the word looked; it’s a tadpole.) 

In the study, Bailenson contrasts an in-person conference room experience, where direct eye contact is limited, with the Zoom experience, where we get direct views of other people non-stop, effectively being “smother(ed)…with eye gaze.” 

He likens Zoom to being in a crowded subway car where you’re forced to stare at the person you’re standing right next to. (Grateful that Smell-O-Vision hasn’t taken off yet…) On top of that, you’ve got what feels like all the other subway riders turning their bodies towards you, so they’re not in your peripheral vision, like in a real room; they’re hanging out in a part of the subway car/your eyes that’s very sensitive to stimuli.

This is similar to the discussion that my doctor and I had, as he explained that when I would lead a workshop in person, I’d be looking with a soft gaze to an audience seated several feet away from me, with the presentation behind me on a large screen. Whereas in these virtual workshops there isn’t a moment of softness, either for my gaze or my neck. 

In addition to getting new glasses (twice), I’ve gotten a much bigger monitor. This enables me to have all the windows open in a font size I can easily read during a meeting. Bailenson recommends reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor so our brains don’t interpret it as a stressful circumstance. And I intentionally use fewer slides than I did for in-person presentations, leveraging pre-work so attendees can spend more of our time together engaging with the ideas and each other. 

Based on what I am learning about Zoom fatigue, when I do present slides, I look directly into the camera, rather than at the listeners. This is a trade-off because I can’t tell exactly how what I am saying is landing, but it optimizes for a) participants to feel like I am looking directly at them and b) less “smothering” of my eyes. 

Mindful of my attendees’ Zoom fatigue, I invite folks to turn off their video when I am presenting slides, if they’d like; I’d rather prioritize their video usage for group discussions and breakouts. I also build in frequent opportunities to check for understanding and optimize engagement when we are in the full group, via chat, polls, Zoom reactions, Menti, and other tools.

  1. THE PRICE OF SOFT PANTS

The study explains how we need to work harder to send and receive non-verbal conversational cues in Zoom, compared to the natural flow of face-to-face interaction. Like many, I have embraced the joy of “soft pants,” since my camera only shows my head and shoulders. 

Alas, it appears that soft pants have their price; and it’s not just the anticipatory panic of all those hard pants with zippers and buttons hanging in the closet, desperate to get back out in a world (and body) where they no longer fit.

Bailenson explains that “the influences of facial expressions, eye gaze, and size of the heads within a screen are likely magnified on Zoom, compared to face-to-face meetings which also provide cues about body size and height, leg movements, posture, and other cues.” In a recent workshop, we were debriefing a listening exercise and discussing Zoom fatigue (on Zoom, very meta).

We discussed how depending where your camera was placed, it might read to the other person that you’re not paying attention to them, when in fact, it’s just that the camera is on another monitor, or facing another direction. While we can adapt to this, Bailenson notes that it is often difficult to overcome these automatic reactions. 

Zoom fatigue

  1. MIRROR, MIRROR ON MY SCREEN

We also discussed how watching ourselves as we are communicating is not only exhausting, it turns on our inner critic. A participant in that workshop noted, “When I’m listening in real life, I’m not asking myself the question I’m asking myself now, which is, does my smile look authentic? Did the person feel like I looked like I was really smiling? Because I can see myself listening while I am listening…” 

Bailenson likens this to our walking around an office with a mirror-holding assistant, who follows us all day, making sure we see ourselves while completing every task and conversation. He acknowledges that this sounds ridiculous, but is basically what’s happening on Zoom. 

While this can result in some positive behavior having more awareness of ourselves and our impact on others the self-analysis is exhausting. We may end up taking ourselves out of the very connection we are trying to make with the other person. 

Research shows that seeing a video of yourself has a larger impact on women, and can prime women to experience depression. I can say with first-hand experience that trying to find a flattering camera angle is a total pain in the neck. One practical tip Bailenson recommends is to use the “hide-self” view on Zoom; if only it were so easy to make peace with one’s inner critic.

  1. ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM; MOVE MOVE MOVE

There was a Mazda commercial a while ago that described Zoom Zoom as “the love of motion experienced as a child.” Now that we’re allegedly grown-up, we often forget this love of motion. And we certainly don’t get to move on a typical Zoom call, as the Stanford study notes. If you watch the Mazda commercial, you may just want to get up and dance! (Apologies in advance if you can’t get the tune out of your head.) 

I’ve led workshops where during our break-time we play songs that attendees have requested. Not only does this get people moving, it is a chance for folks to turn off their video, get away from the camera, and release their inner Zoom Zoom. 

These days I consume far more content by listening rather than reading; for example, podcasts and audiobooks, which enable me to give my eyes a break and move my body at the same time. Throughout the day I will intentionally close my eyes (I’m typing with closed eyes right now); or stand up (usually with eyes open), walk to the window, and change what I am looking at. I try to look out into the horizon as often as I can. 

Also, looking outside reminds me that I do indeed have a body (because I have to get up to walk to the window) and that there is a natural world out there, just waiting for me and my soft pants. It is a reminder to drop my shoulders and relax my neck. This might be a good chance to check in with your shoulders and drop them. 

A few months before the pandemic picked up steam in 2020, I started practicing Qi Gong with Fabrice Piche, an expert in the Taiji Qigong Shibashi form, who has been delivering Qi Gong via Zoom/video conferencing for a decade. My weekly Qi Gong sessions with Fabrice and another friend have provided me with tools to improve my posture, overall well-being, and energy levels. 

While I have had a meditation practice for decades (you can find me sharing meditation on the Unplug and Simple Habit apps), what I love about Qi Gong is that it has been a powerful counterweight to all the time that I am spending sitting at my desk in front of the computer. Even though I am doing these sessions over Zoom, there are a few differences between them and a typical Zoom meeting: 

  • I am usually standing up at a distance; I watch Fabrice do the postures and usually don’t watch myself as I do them, except to check alignment. 
  • I am standing and moving when we are doing the active forms.
  • When we are doing a meditation practice, my eyes are closed.

After a year of study, my favorite practice remains yawning and then laughing. Yes, you can try that one at home! 

Zoom

BREAKS: THEY DO A BRAIN GOOD

A TechCrunch piece shares what is painfully obvious — constant video calls increase stress. It discusses a study from Microsoft that found that during meetings with no breaks, people showed higher levels of beta waves, which are associated with stress. And, the study suggested that there was a buildup of stress for those without breaks. 

The Microsoft study found that breaks not only helped alleviate stress, they also helped improve performance. I encourage leaders to take this data to heart and to schedule slack time, either by ending meetings a few minutes before the hour; starting meetings a few minutes after the hour; kicking off meetings with a “moment to arrive,” and checking in with direct reports about meeting cadence in general. 

One of the counterintuitive findings we find is that by taking a few moments to arrive at a meeting — taking a few breaths and connecting to your intention for the meeting — can allow for much quicker and more efficient meetings. In other words, slow down to speed up. (Listen to podcast Season 2, episode 6, “Digging in to Toxic Stew,” starting at 51:30 for a quick 3-part breathing exercise.)

I consider this need for breaks akin to the feeling I get of being “T’wired,” where we’re filled with adrenaline, feeling hyper-aroused, yet can’t get away from our screens. Sometimes after a Zoom workshop, I’ll feel energized after the excitement of doing what I love with an audience that’s really engaging with the ideas. Yet at the same time, I feel drained and exhausted. Unfortunately my default habit to deal with this is often…more screen time, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling (down the river) of dopamine reward.

I’m fortunate that I’m usually able to set aside time after workshops to intentionally replenish myself, rather than go directly into another Zoom meeting. Sometimes I’ll lie down on the floor, allowing my body to sink into my faux fur rug. I’ll do a few Qi Gong postures, or a quick breathwork meditation. I’ve also benefited from engaging other senses such as: smelling a candle, squishing a Koosh ball in my wrist, or having some warm tea. It sounds obvious, but I’ve found that even drinking a glass of water helps when I’ve got a case of the T’wireds.

My favorite post-workshop recharge is a rigorous game of Cardio Card Flyer, which involves me flipping a cardboard flyer promoting a local business, under the watchful eye of Ziji the striped cat. (Ted the black cat has zero interest.) As Ziji is not inclined to chase, I run after the card, flip it again, and run back to the other side of the apartment under her watchful gaze. The beauty of Cardio Card Flyer is that it is a game you can play whether or not you live with/are owned by cats! 

The benefits are multifold: I get some running and stretching in; it reminds me of my childhood days when I used to flip baseball cards; and I’d like to think it helps the dental office or real estate agency whose card I am using feel like their marketing dollars have been well spent. In other news, here is the album cover for our next Zoom Zoom dance party.

Zoom fatigue

TRUST: THE STARTING FRONTIER

Originally when the pandemic started we were encouraging everyone to make everything a video meeting. We need to see each other! We need to connect!

That’s changed. Of course, we still need to see one another and connect, but we also need to optimize for other things. I do think there are circumstances where video remains very important. For example, in our workshops, when folks go into the breakout groups to practice giving and receiving feedback. Or listening. The additional input of body language and non-verbal cues provide essential data when it comes to clear and kind communication, especially during difficult conversations. 

But just like after a few emails back and forth you might ask yourself, should this email be a phone call, you can also ask yourself when it comes to your meetings, what kind of conversation does this really need to be? Lately I have been having my 1:1s with Jason (my manager) on the phone; I like to be by the computer so I can take notes, but we don’t need to do video. 

Or we’ll start with video to say hi and then switch to audio-only. If there is something to discuss that I don’t need to take notes on, I enjoy walking while having these calls with Jason, to meet the need for mobility outlined in the Stanford study.

This move back to audio for me and Jason is an easy transition because we have built such a trusting relationship (Check out the podcast episode Manipulative Insincerity, Talking ABOUT People Instead of TO Them, Season 2, Episode 14, to hear one way in which Jason has built trust with me; me and Jason chat about that, starting @31:31.) Harvard Business School Professor Tsedal Neeley outlines in a recent Forbes piece the two kinds of trust you need when working remotely, “swift trust” and “emotional trust.” 

“You need to pay attention to two kinds of trust when working remotely. The first is called ‘swift trust’, which is a cognitive form of trust that develops when you have evidence that others are competent and reliable. That’s enough for you to work effectively within a group and accomplish tasks together for months. Swift trust works like magic and liberates people from worrying about what others are thinking, whether they like them, and so on. It’s: ‘Are they competent and reliable? Boom! Let’s go.’ People have performed really well with swift trust.”

Zoom

“Leaders, though, need more for their relationships with their teams. They need what’s called ‘emotional trust,’ which is grounded in the belief that others care about us, what concerns us, and what interests us. Leaders must earn emotional trust in a remote environment so that their people believe they care and feel free to share their thoughts with them. And leaders must reflect emotional trust back to their team. Without that two-way emotional trust, people become preoccupied with worries like, ‘Did he forget me?,’ or ‘Am I important to her?’”

The “Care Personally” dimension of Radical Candor plays an important rule in building the emotional trust that Professor Neeley describes. It might seem that many organizations have shifted seamlessly to a virtual world, but I believe what will make or break these teams going forward is the degree to which trust has been established or destabilized this past year. While you might not be able to control the decisions that are being made at the senior levels of your organization, it is possible to build (and re-build) trust with the people you work most closely with.

COMING HOME TO OURSELVES, AND EACH OTHER

Last week, while standing in line at the Whole Foods juice bar, an older Black woman slowly wheeled her full cart past me, a well-worn wooden cane resting on top of her groceries. From out under our masks, two pairs of eyes looked at each other and smiled. She said, warmly, “Hello!” and I smiled back, “Hello, I see you!” 

Her face lit up and she said, “I feel it!” and I said, “Yes, yes, I see you!” and we laughed out of sheer joy. The joy of being seen, and seeing another. Her name was Deborah. We told each other how we just made each other’s day. We gave our new friend a virtual hug and went our separate ways, united by that shared experience. 

Those moments of serendipitous exchange are an area where video tools can improve; I’m optimistic there will be lots of exciting new developments. Recently our team tried out Teamflow HQ. I had lots of fun “traveling” through different virtual rooms, not to mention how much I enjoyed playing a game like Pictionary together in real time via the tool. Still, for me, there’s nothing quite like seeing another person eye-to-eye, face-to-face…in person.

A lifelong entrepreneur, one of Dad’s favorite quotes was Ben Franklin’s “Energy and Persistence Conquer All Things,” which embodied the way he led his life. In just a few weeks, I’ll be getting back on a plane for the first time, headed to Boston. To be with my family and to honor Dad on his birthday. Technology also hasn’t figured out a way, yet, to replicate the feeling of hugging a family member or someone you love. Or the feeling of the ground under foot, supporting you as you place flowers at a grave. 

Get tips on ways to beat Zoom fatigue in a new post from Radical Candor Director of Content Creation & Marketing Brandi Neal >>

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Amy Sandler

Amy Sandler is chief content officer and a coach at Radical Candor. She has shared Radical Candor around the world, from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies, in industries ranging from aerospace to technology, financial services to franchising, and education to healthcare. An executive coach, corporate mindfulness trainer and professional speaker, Amy has more than 20 years of experience in senior marketing roles including Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Vistage and UCLA. She has an AB and MBA from Harvard University, an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA and is a certified teacher of the Search Inside Yourself leadership program developed at Google.