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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Listen to “Avoiding Zoom Fatigue” on Spreaker.
Listen to Larry Magid’s CBS News segment on Zoom fatigue

Over the past couple of years there has been an increased focus on screen time. Much of this has to do with the pandemic that has forced both adults and children into video meetings and learning during times when it was considered unsafe to gather in person. Even though there are signs the pandemic may be winding down, many organizations and businesses — and some schools — continue to conduct much of their business online, and some say they will continue that even after the pandemic. That’s because many employees prefer working from home, and a lot of bosses have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t hinder productivity.

Working and going to school from home can also be cheaper. There are no commute costs, but it takes its toll in other ways.

There’s even a new term — Zoom fatigue. Google it and you’ll find several articles on why video meetings can be more exhausting than attending in person

In an online paper published by the American Psychological Association’s Technology, Mind, and Behavior journal, Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson observed that Zoom fatigue can result from “excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.” It can even increase intensity of contact. “On Zoom,” he wrote, “behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships — such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up — has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.”

Zoom recommends turning off self-view. That constant awareness of how you look can induce anxiety. I do think it’s a good idea to know how you and your environment appear to others (my office may be cluttered but the area in focus from my webcam isn’t), but once you’ve established that you look OK, you can turn it off for the rest of the meeting.

I sometimes turn off the camera completely. I almost always have myself on camera when the meeting starts so I can say hello, but there are times that I turn off the camera so that I don’t have to constantly be in view of other people. That also allows me to get up and stretch or glance at my phone or another window on my PC without being seen as not paying attention, a common occurrence based on what I see others doing. Like a lot of people, I pay attention to how I look from the waist up, but they don’t need to see my sweatpants if I get up during the meeting.

One of the advantages to working at home is that you can take breaks throughout the day as long as you get your work done. Lately, I’ve been going for hour-long walks, but — the other day — I realized I couldn’t get home in time for a Zoom meeting. It was a little awkward, but I joined it from my smartphone by holding the camera up to my face as I walked. I even gave my fellow attendees a brief look at my neighborhood. You have to be careful not to trip or bump into things, but it’s not that hard to walk safely as long as you don’t stare at the screen. Zoom and most other video-conferencing systems also let you dial-in by phone, which is what I do if I have to drive during a meeting.

Most of the time I attend meetings in my office on my desktop PC, but if it’s a nice day, I sometimes take my calls from my backyard or my living room couch — just to get some variety.

It’s still important to take breaks. I have noticed that Zoom meetings tend to be shorter than in-person meetings. But even if the meeting lasts an hour, it makes sense to take a five-minute break in the middle. It’s also a good idea to move your eyes away from the screen now and then to avoid eye strain. The so-called “20-20-20 rule,” reportedly developed by an optometrist, suggests taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes by focusing on an object 20 feet away.

If you want to walk around the room during your meeting, consider getting a Facebook Portal, which supports Zoom and Bluejeans conferencing systems along with those from Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. Its claim to fame is the ability for the camera to follow you around as you wander about the room. The Portal also has an exceptionally good camera — people who use it look noticeably better than with most webcams. Facebook offers several models, including a $149 model that uses your TV for a screen, and the $199 Portal Go that has a rechargeable battery.

Finally, consider alternatives to video conferencing. I sometimes wonder if everyone knows that their smartphone really is a phone — you can use it to talk with people without having to look at them, and sometimes that can be relaxing. And, since COVID-19 is much less likely to spread when you’re outside, consider having outdoor meetings in people’s backyards, company courtyards or even public parks. You’ll get a break from screens and — as a bonus — some fresh air.

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