Why Is Virtual Communication Exhausting?

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.

Zoom fatigue is real. For many of us it is due to the sheer volume of videoconferences that we are on each day. The increase in the use of videoconferencing tools in 2020 is staggering. There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence to support claims that it increases our productivity, connection, and efficiency. But even beyond meeting overload, there are reasons why videoconferencing tires us out more than face-to-face communication. It has to do with our instincts.

Humans rely on instincts a great deal when communicating. It is something that we do so constantly, we barely think about it. But when we are communicating virtually, certain instincts get disrupted.

Eye contact, for example, is a critical part of human communication and connection. When we are in a conversation, it is natural for us to look directly at one another most of the time. In fact, if you don’t look at me enough, my instincts start to kick in and make me wonder if you have something to hide and if I can trust you. But when we are communicating virtually, we NEVER actually achieve real eye contact. Not once. It’s impossible. If I am looking directly at you (your eyes on the screen), then it does not appear to you that I am looking directly at you. I have to look into the camera in order to achieve that, but then I lose sight of you. It is distracting at best for us to have entire conversations where we never once lock eyes.

Volume management is another issue. Have you ever found yourself almost shouting at your laptop, heard from your partner that you are too loud on videocalls, or ended up hoarse at the end of a long day? We are used to regulating our volume and projection based on eyesight and depth perception. If I judge you to be farther away from me in a given space, I don’t have to think about it, I will instinctively speak more loudly. On a videocall, however, these instincts are useless. We are constantly trying to judge the depth and volume requirements, which is tiring and often leads to overcompensation.

Think also about how we read cues from an audience. In an in-person environment, we are constantly taking in information about how an audience is receiving us and our communication. We are gauging their levels of engagement, interest, and agreement all the time – mostly subconsciously. But when we are in a virtual realm, we cannot even hear if they laugh at a joke, because most of the time they are all – studiously and respectfully – on mute. In terms of body language, what is visible on screen is very limited, so we already are at a disadvantage. And if we are trying to look directly at them with meaningful eye contact (i.e. into the camera), it is very hard to also take in their facial reactions. Instead we have to compensate by checking in with them more regularly and asking for feedback more directly.

The point of all this is to say: this is hard. It is exhausting. Unfortunately, we cannot rely simply on the instincts that made us strong communicators in person to thrive virtually.

The good news is that humans are always learning. We can engage in intentional adaptation; we can adopt techniques and build new muscle memory that can make virtual communication easier and help us see more success and satisfaction. While we may hope that vaccines will enable us to return to more of our day-to-day in-person routines, they will certainly not bring an end to virtual communication. Investing time and effort in adapting our skillsets now will have both immediate and long-term rewards.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.