Until recently, a lot of people would have engaged in online meetings once in a while when engaging with out-of-state or overseas colleagues and customers. Since the Movement Control Order (MCO) in March, virtual connections have become a daily occurrence.
From a leadership perspective, there are many benefits of being able to connect via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other online platforms. For a start, there’s no need to round people up – everyone’s able to sign in on their devices from wherever they happen to be.
We can also share a broad range of information in real-time, share our screens to elaborate on ideas, and instantly discuss our opinions and views before putting a plan of action in place. Online meetings are convenient in a lot of ways, but they aren’t without disadvantages when it comes to our health.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, observed that online meetings remove many of the non-verbal cues we rely on for effective communication. Our minds and bodies experience a disconnect, he says, which can lead to exhaustion.
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Silence is another issue. When it arises naturally during in-person communication, it can help develop a natural rhythm of communication and rapport. However, when silence happens online, we start to worry about our internet connection and start becoming agitated. A 2014 study by German researchers found that even delays of just 1.2 seconds made people perceive the person on the other side as less friendly or focused.
Talking to Sandy Clarke – mindfulness author and psychotherapist – he told me that there are several factors that contribute to ‘Zoom fatigue’ including sitting for long periods and focusing on the screen for long periods of time.
“We don’t realise all the little things that usually break up our days, and those have temporarily stopped,” he said. “Especially for leaders, online meetings can often be back-to-back, giving little time to take a break or to recharge that might otherwise happen as we move from one space or place to another.
You might grab a coffee in between meetings, walk to another part of the building or spend 15 minutes or more travelling to another meeting. Even taking five minutes to grab some water and small talk with colleagues allows for some respite before you have to focus again. When it comes to online meetings, some people are spending a few hours each day on them, and it takes an emotional and physical toll.”
To counteract Zoom fatigue, I try to move around regularly and do some stretching to improve blood circulation and take my eyes off the screen for five minutes or so. Here are a few more tips for leaders, or anyone feeling the fatigue, that I’ve found useful in keeping the burnout at bay.
1. Ask yourself if the meeting is really necessary
These days, anything in need of discussion seems to call for a meeting…but does it really? So much time can be wasted in going back-and-forth and around in circles, and eventually, a decision is made after one or two hours when it could have been made in 15 minutes. Using email or WhatsApp are often better alternatives, as they allow us to get straight to the point with shorter – and clearer – communication. If the issue is important, by all means, call a meeting. But meetings for the sake of feeling productive are frequently counterproductive and can leave people feeling jaded.
2. Give your eyes a rest
When working on your laptop for long spells, try to follow the 20-20-20 Rule, which helps to prevent eye strain from looking at digital screens for too long. Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away. This helps to relax the eye muscles as we reduce the intensity of our focus.
3. Get up and move around
Our bodies aren’t designed to sit still for long periods, and certainly not in the bad postural positions that many of us habitually sink into. Every hour, perform two or three stretches at your desk to minimise neck and shoulder strain, as well as other aches and pains. A few minutes of stretching can help ease the stress and tension that accumulate as we sit in front of our laptops.
4. Grab a power nap
The benefits of power-napping are well-known, and they give us a chance to re-energise our minds and improve alertness. Taking a nap between 10-20 minutes in the early afternoon is ideal, whereas anything over 30 minutes could result in grogginess and feelings of fatigue. Even our devices get a chance to power down throughout the day, so take advantage of some downtime yourself.
5. Try a 5-minute meditation
As Sandy suggests, “Even short meditations can have big benefits. When we close our eyes, focusing on our breath and centring ourselves in the present, it helps us de-stress as we briefly tune out of all the ‘to-do’ tasks vying for our attention. A 5-minute meditation is also useful for anyone who feels nervous before giving a presentation or talk. For increased benefits, it’s useful to meditate daily.”
6. Finally…if you feel tired, excuse yourself
Unless your presence is really necessary (e.g. you’re giving an update or report), most leaders will be fine if you excuse yourself from the online meeting and get updates later. Good leaders are happy to give people space when they need it, knowing that a happy (and rested) employee is usually more creative and engaged.