These days, Robin DeRosa’s workday begins at 8:30 a.m. when she heads to the makeshift desk she’s set up on a buffet table in her home and opens Zoom. DeRosa, director of the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, used the videoconferencing program long before anyone was talking about social-distancing or Covid-19. But now, she spends her entire workday on it.
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“Our office has shifted completely to a virtual Zoom office,” DeRosa says. “It’s on the one hand a total replication of our face-to-face office, and on the other hand, completely different on so many levels.”
DeRosa is an open-education activist and a very online person. Still, she and her staff — who are helping students and professors navigate the shift to remote instruction — have found the amount of time they’re spending on Zoom “quite exhausting,” she says. They’re planning some adjustments to avoid getting burned out by video chat.
In this anxious and isolating time, Zoom — the brand name now used as a shorthand to describe a whole technology (videoconferencing) — has emerged as a stand-in for just about every interaction that would normally be happening face to face or handled with a quick email.
Professors flocked to the platform once they learned they’d be teaching remotely for several weeks; then several weeks became the rest of the semester. Many appreciate having the technology to see the faces of students they had expected to keep seeing in person. The faces of students they worried about, students they missed. Many professors hoped to replicate the in-person experience as closely as they could. But one word comes up time and again when they talk about teaching on the platform, or using it for meetings. It’s the same word DeRosa used. Exhausting.
What is it, exactly, that’s so depleting about interacting with a grid of faces on video chat? Heavy users and experts in psychology and communication point to a number of factors: The body language and other cues that we expect but can’t access; the way we monitor our own appearance; the stimulation of staring into faces at close range; the inability to take a break, move, or change our surroundings.
DeRosa has given the question some thought. “Lots of the platforms that I use online to connect with people do all sorts of cool things that I could never do face to face,” she says. Zoom, on the other hand, “feels like a hollow impersonation of a face-to-face classroom.”
Talking Into Space
DeRosa is not alone in that assessment. Kevin R. McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, teaches hybrid classes. For years, he’s used Zoom to beam in students who are unable to attend his classes in person. His department does the same to include in meetings professors who are out of town at a conference or home with a sick child.
There’s a big difference, McClure has found, between having some class or meeting participants attend via Zoom and having everyone participate that way.
Usually, McClure has no problem focusing during meetings. Lately, he’s distracted. It’s easy to peek at his phone without anyone noticing. It’s hard to ignore the commotion of his small children elsewhere in the house.
I kind of walk away from the experience as if I’ve just talked into space for a period of time, as opposed to feeling like you have facilitated a conversation or been part of a learning experience.
Teaching on the platform is challenging, too, McClure has found. He can’t rely on students’ body language or the feeling in the room to gauge their understanding. It’s hard to tell whose turn it is to talk, leading to a lot of awkward pauses. McClure thinks best when he’s literally on his feet. He misses being able to move around while he teaches.
“I kind of walk away from the experience as if I’ve just talked into space for a period of time,” McClure says, “as opposed to feeling like you have facilitated a conversation or been part of a learning experience.”
While McClure is using Zoom regularly, he knows other people are using it a lot more than he is. He wonders how the technology is affecting students taking multiple courses, or administrators who spend the whole day in meetings.
Abigail T. Panter is one of those administrators. As senior associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Panter always has a lot of meetings. But since the Covid-19 crisis hit higher ed, she’s pared down the projects she’s involved in. Now her entire day is meetings. All of those meetings are about the pandemic, and all of those meetings are on Zoom. “You click the ‘leave meeting’ button,” she says, “and go into the next one.”
Panter misses walking between rooms, or buildings, between meetings. She misses swinging by a colleague’s desk. In Zoom, she says, it’s much harder to scan the room. When she’s the one leading a meeting, Panter — a psychologist — makes an effort to exaggerate her own nonverbal cues.
When she’s attending a meeting mostly to gather information, Panter will listen while going for a walk, which helps a little. She thinks it might also help if every meeting were 10 minutes shorter, allowing for breaks between them.
Social conventions around videoconferencing remain in their early days, which could also be a factor in Zoom fatigue. Suddenly, everyone’s Zooming all of their professional and personal contacts, possibly all from the same corner of their home. Everything has been flattened.
“There’s a weird context collapse that’s happening,” says Bonnie Stewart, an assistant professor of online pedagogy and workplace learning on the University of Windsor’s faculty of education.
It’s as if you ate lunch in one country with a particular set of customs, she says, “and literally two hours later, you’re in a completely different country eating lunch with a completely different group of people” with their own habits and mores.
Meanwhile, you haven’t left your desk.
A Window and a Mirror
There are lots of other ways to communicate from a distance, of course. Email, text, group chat, a regular old phone call. Why the surge of interest in this one?
Well, we’re all a little starved for human contact. And Zoom feels like the next-best thing. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
Videoconferencing is one of the richer forms of telecommunication, says Tanya Joosten, a senior scientist and director of digital-learning research and development at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and co-director of the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements. Zoom provides a window into other participants’ environments, and how they present themselves, and their facial expressions. All of that should increase users’ ability to understand the message being communicated.
Zoom is also a mirror. “One of those boxes on the screen,” Joosten says, “is you.” That might mean we’re all expending more energy monitoring our own nonverbal communication than we ever would in person. Perhaps that’s part of what’s so tiring.
Another factor in the exhaustion, Joosten adds, is that so many people want to project to others that they’re doing business as usual, even while the news is full of “images of death, of illness, of economic downturn and collapse.”
It’s admittedly difficult to know how much of the exhaustion many academics are feeling is about the way they’re communicating and how much is about what they’re living through. But there’s something inherently draining about video chats.
Using Zoom — at least with the standard settings — means looking right into other people’s faces at close range, says Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of its Virtual Human Interaction Lab. That isn’t what people do in a classroom, or a meeting, or most social situations. “In the real world,” Bailenson says, “when someone gets that close up, we get aroused. There’s probably some type of a conflict situation, from an evolutionary standpoint — or we’re going to be intimate with them.”
Professors, Bailenson says, can mitigate this dynamic by playing around with their settings, perhaps using an external camera or a second monitor. Or they might consider a different kind of platform, says Bailenson, who has provided consulting to or received academic grant funding from many of the big players in virtual-reality technology.
“The most important thing I can say,” he says, “is think really hard: Does this conversation get augmented by having everyone see one another’s faces?”
Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior and academic director of the Initiative for Learning Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Insead, a graduate business school with locations in several countries, was trying to get to the bottom of Zoom fatigue. So Petriglieri — who is also a medical doctor and licensed psychiatrist and works on the school’s campus outside Paris — reached out to a therapist friend. Therapy is deeply relational and traditionally delivered face to face. But therapists, Petriglieri knew, have increasingly worked online with clients for 10 or 15 years now. How did they make those interactions more tolerable?
The friend pointed out an important distinction. When people who have no other chance to see each other’s faces get together on Zoom, it’s an opportunity. When people who regularly meet in person use Zoom, it’s a letdown. It’s less about the technology, in other words, and more about the context.
“For most of us,” Petriglieri says, “we have good psychological defenses, and we are grateful that we have these tools.” Many professors, he says, feel “gratitude for being able to do what they do.” But that feeling, he added, is in conflict with “the sense of restriction.”
Given the challenges of remote instruction and all that students are facing during the pandemic, Petriglieri says, many instructors have streamlined their courses, offering only the essentials. That could mean emphasizing content delivery, and doing less of the work many professors value most — “bringing people together and helping people grow.”
“It’s slightly dehumanizing,” Petriglieri says. “I use that word technically. Dehumanizing of a lot of the aspects of teaching and learning that normally we’re accustomed to.”
Because they’re aware of this, and because of the circumstances, Petriglieri says, many professors are making an extra effort to check in with their students on a human level, to see if they’re OK, and, in some cases, to offer help.
Working hard in a job that’s been stripped of its best parts is tiring. So is being worried about people you have some responsibility for.
“I think the exhaustion is not technological fatigue,” Petriglieri says. “It’s compassion fatigue.”We welcome your thoughts and questions about this article. Please email the editors or submit a letter for publication.