Remote communication fatigue and wellbeing
May 22, 2020
We’ve been working remotely from our homes for over eight weeks now since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we’ve quickly had to adapt our ways of working and communicating.
Technology enables us to continue working with each other and our customers, but during this experience it has become apparent there are undoubtedly challenges. People are finding that the new ways of remote working can be exhausting, particularly when days are consumed so much more with video calling. It is a different kind of workplace exhaustion.
Where previously people were tired perhaps from commuting and commitments after a long day, the exhaustion now is a heady mix of the mental, emotional and physical having not left our homes.
As well as continuing to work hard while remote, we have tried hard to remain connected, to keep isolation and anxiety at bay. There is undoubtedly an opportunity within this experience to learn from our ways of working and to help manage our work lives and our physical and mental wellbeing.
Why is it so tiring?
Everyone working remotely will have experienced it; the connection dropping out, the screen freezing, dozens of heads all looking at you, seeing yourself, back-to-back calls, finding it harder to take a break, trying not to talk over each other, wondering what other people are thinking. It’s exhausting.
Associate Professor at Insead, Gianpiero Petriglieri and Marissa Shuffler, associate professor at Clemson University have highlighted these issues as common to many people’s experiences. We are all in new territory and we need to understand what makes it so tiring so we can respond.
Video calls require much more focus than face-to-face communication. We have to work harder to process non-verbal facial cues, tone of voice, body language and turn taking, than we normally would if we were physically present.
Talking through a screen we have to work to demonstrate that we are paying attention and it’s impossible to actually look directly at people through the screen, particularly in large calls. One Unboxed-er described this experience as feeling akin to motion sickness. There is a dissonance between feeling present with someone in our minds but not in our physical selves. And it’s this mental dissonance that causes people to have conflicting feelings - which is exhausting.
Your mind is saying one thing and your body another! The moments of delay and silence compound this. It is difficult to read an action within a silence and it can produce a perception that someone is not paying attention or focussed.
Communicating largely through the screen means that we know we are being watched, often by multiple people, and there is a different intensity to this experience; a heightened sense of surveillance, that we are performing and having to perform to our best, particularly in times of underlying fear and uncertainty to make ourselves feel secure. Performing is stressful and tiring and when we can also see ourselves all the time we become more aware of how we are performing.
Self complexity theory suggests that as individuals we have multiple, context specific aspects to our lives; social roles, relationships, activities and goals.
Before lockdown, these different aspects of our lives were more separate; social relationships, home life, work life. This variety of contexts is good for our mental wellbeing. But over the last weeks our personal and professional lives all now exist in the same space, they have collapsed into one.
We might be spending our working time on video calls, then doing the same in the evenings with much missed family and friends, and always in the same environment through the same means. This reduction in variety creates more negative feelings and we can struggle because of this — it can all feel too much and heightens the lack of separation between public and private.
While it is nice to have a window into colleagues’ home lives and see them in a different context, it can also feel intrusive as you become aware of colleagues and customers having a view into your private world.
This working and living experience is teaching and reminding us constantly of things we perhaps didn't think much about before. In the office environment, the day is naturally punctuated. Toilet breaks are taken during meetings, we move into different rooms or wander over to other’s desks, or chat over making a coffee all of which provides a natural break.
Remotely, it is a much more concentrated period of time. Back-to-back meetings can be scheduled without the natural breaks, because we don’t have anywhere else to go! It feels less easy to take natural breaks and more disruptive or discourteous to step away from the screen.
So how can we help and what can we learn?
We are all thinking on our feet and learning each week how best to adapt and be productive. We need to recognise the challenges that affect our wellbeing and find ways to help.
It helps to simply acknowledge the difficulties that come up and share the experiences. If one person is having a particular experience, it's likely someone else is too. When issues are shared we can come up with solutions together or we risk feeling isolated and anxious.
1. Limit video calls
Gianpiero Petriglieri suggests limiting video calls to those that are necessary might be something to try. They are clearly invaluable for the team and customers when doing a Show and Tell or a Retrospective for example. But there are other ways of sharing that can alleviate this form of communication for other needs. An internal conversation or phone call could be better, when we might ordinarily go over and ask someone something.
2. Reduce camera time
Knowing you are always being seen through the camera adds to the tiring aspect of performing. Coming to an understanding or agreement that cameras do not necessarily have to be on through a whole meeting might help to relieve this and allow some respite while still being engaged in the conversation.
3. Set meeting expectations
Boundaries, pauses and transitions during the day are important, so build them in to the day as you would normally in order to refresh. Perhaps come to an understanding before meetings that it’s OK to go to the toilet, make a drink, or stare out of the window during meetings. Make clear the etiquette and expectations. It’s what we do when we are physically together and therefore should be what we do remotely.
As events shift suddenly we are aware we have to work differently to create buffers between our private and workplace identities and we need to acknowledge the aspects that affect us negatively. That way, we can better continue to work productively while looking after wellbeing.
When we see each other on the screen we are reminded that we are not necessarily where we should be, which is normally, together. Since lockdown, it has been important to check in with each other and as a team we have shown impressive care and attention to our colleagues.
We will have come through this experience having learned a lot.