A Zoom meeting at Zoom.us

‘Zoom fatigue’ really has nothing to do with Zoom itself

I’ve recently seen posts pop up in my seemingly bottomless LinkedIn feed talking about a new phenomenon: ‘Zoom fatigue.’

While this assertion may be well and true, I still see, ironically enough, people showing off screen grabs from video conferencing apps where dozens of coworkers are joined together in a single virtual call. I’m sure you’ve already seen these kinds of images, too — or have even posted one yourself! It would make you think that people are enjoying themselves on these calls. But perhaps that’s not entirely true.

This got me wondering if there could possibly be a link between these two opposing phenomena? Let me walk you through my train of thought.

For starters, after facing a lot of scrutiny around security and privacy issues at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m pretty certain the last thing Zoom would ever want its brand to be associated with or known for, at this point, is the word ‘fatigue.’ What brand would?

However, as a company that’s now become synonymous with multi-participant video conference calls — sometimes lasting hours on end — this notion of ‘fatigue’ doesn’t really sound like an exaggeration. People have experienced ‘meeting fatigue’ or ‘conference call fatigue’ for years now, so why would we expect Zoom calls to face a different fate?

We shouldn’t. Technology isn’t the problem; meetings themselves are the problem.

You may have already heard of Jeff Bezos’ legendary ‘two-pizza rule,’ a guideline for determining how many attendees should be invited to any meeting. What you may not know, however, is that this simple rule of thumb is actually backed by science.

Professor Richard Hackman, a Harvard researcher, having studied social and organizational psychology for almost 50 years, concluded that four to six people is the optimal number of members for a project team. He found that communication problems tend to “increase exponentially as team size increases.” See the charts below.

This assessment has been corroborated by Jake Knapp in his bestseller Sprint:

“We’ve found the ideal size for a sprint to be seven people or fewer. With eight people, or nine, or more, the sprint moves more slowly, and you’ll have to work harder to keep everyone focused and productive. With seven or fewer, everything is easier.”

Simple enough, right? What we know now is that the optimal team size maximum efficiency is about six or seven people at most. If there are more than six people in a meeting, you really should ask yourself an important question: “Is everyone here essential for making decisions?” (To be honest, you should ask yourself that question regardless of the number of people you’ve invited to a meeting!)

Fatigue can manifest itself in different ways. Let’s look at it like this: the more people in a meeting, the less time each person has to speak and contribute to the discussion.

In a one-hour meeting with six participants, for example, the average speaking time per participant is roughly ten minutes. If you increase the number of participants to ten, then each person only gets about six minutes to speak.

Therefore, with six participants (vs. ten) in a meeting, the average speaking time is 70% greater per person. That’s a huge difference!

This can play a significant role in how much people really participate in meetings, too. After all, when people have fewer opportunities to contribute to a discussion, there’s a greater chance they’ll choose to play a more passive role — whether intentional or not.

The consequences of this could be one (or all) of the following:

  • If participants already know, before going into the meeting, that their attendance is pretty useless, there’s little chance they’ll spend any time preparing for it;
  • If certain attendees aren’t key participants in a discussion or decision-makers, they’ll get bored, quickly lose focus, and get irritated as the meeting drags on; and/or
  • If your end goal is to ensure that everyone is on the same page at the end of a meeting, you may have to repeat yourself several times to get confirmation of it.

And the list of consequences goes on.

How long can we stay focused on any given topic? Based on the studies I’ve read, people can maintain focus for anywhere between 20 to 50 minutes. That’s a wide range.

Speaking for myself, I know I can’t read more than 30 minutes at a time without losing focus. When talking over the phone with my partner, 90 minutes is about the max before we get tired and have nothing else to talk about.

Now, imagine a two-hour video conference with 20 people. What a nightmare!

Perhaps your boss just wants to hear himself speak — after all, as the boss, he can conduct his meetings however he wants — or your colleague, Sarah, is bored at home and keeps the conversation going just to have some human interaction.

An Indian chief telling stories to his tribe.

But you, you just want to do your job — and you want to do it in the most efficient way possible. Staying on a video call for hours isn’t going to help you do that.

Working remotely is not just about trying to replicate a normal day of work outside of the office (including all of the bad habits that go hand-in-hand with office spaces). Instead, it’s about taking full advantage of what benefits the digital world brings to work.

In 2014, American researchers interviewed team members and team leaders from 55 successful virtual (or geographically distributed) teams to make observations about leadership practices in action. They even attended some of those remote team meetings.

A key discovery was that the “most successful virtual team leaders establish a synchronous as well as an asynchronous collaboration rhythm.” What this basically means: successful virtual teams use the time between meetings to asynchronously generate and evaluate ideas, with the help of electronic discussion threads and collaboration tools.

Therefore, working remotely ideally encourages teams to think and collaborate seamlessly across each phase of collaboration. This has been shown to drive higher quality work.

The four phases of collaboration according to Douglas Engelbart.

This is in contrast to traditional face-to-face collaborations — and even in some unsuccessful virtual teams — where team members wait until face-to-face or synchronous meetings (i.e. all-team video conferences) to brainstorm and make progress on a specific innovation task.

Think about the meetings you’ve recently attended. How many people do not have a clue about the agenda before the meeting starts? How many people haven’t read the necessary background materials to participate intelligently in the discussion? That’s a perfect case of synchronous communications causing people to be, funny enough, out of sync.

Today, there are plenty of tools that enable asynchronous collaboration. That being said, it’s important to make the distinction between collaboration and communication tools.

For example, Slack is not a collaboration tool. It’s a communication tool. When your coworkers ‘Slack you,’ they typically expect a reply within minutes. You get a notification, which causes you to lose focus on whatever you were doing as you are prompted to answer them on-the-spot. This is both the benefit and downside of being able to communicate with your coworkers in quasi-real-time — even when working remotely.

Asynchronous collaboration, on the other hand, follows your own natural rhythm. As stated in The 25th Hour: “Take full advantage of what some call your ‘biological prime time’ (that is, the time of day when your energy levels are naturally at the peak.”

Asynchronous collaboration is about contributing to the collective work when you feel you can do so, without interruption, and, of course, without getting stuck in endless meetings.

To do this efficiently, you need to create a “shared environment” in which all team members can contribute at their own pace — when it’s needed most — and keep track of what really matters for them. Combining real-time collaboration, supported by an efficient video conferencing system like Zoom, with a shared interactive environment favors effective collaboration at all times. This, in turn, can reduce the fatigue caused by an overabundance of long and tedious meetings and/or video conferences.

An example of Draft.io usage.

With Draft.io, our goal is to provide you with an optimal collaborative and interactive environment that amplifies how you and your team work. Although there are many ways to address this same problem, our’s is a visual and malleable collaborative blackboard that enhances innovative thinking, supports visual project management, facilitates decision-making, and keeps projects moving forward smoothly.

In other words, it’s a solution to help you and your team combat fatigue — in all its forms.