How to build the engagement of your online audience

At the end of 2019, Zoom–the world's most popular online meeting software, had around 10 million daily meeting participants. In 2020, after the pandemic began, they had over 300 million daily meeting users.

Needless to say, times sure have changed over the last couple of years. Today, more and more companies have switched to either fully remote or a hybrid work environment. Because of this switch, employees have to attend more meetings than ever, and almost all happen through a computer screen. A new issue has come into focus through all of these changes in how people gather to get work done. In fact, it even has its own term.

It's called "Zoom fatigue."

What is Zoom Fatigue?

If you feel groggy, anxious, or worn out after several online meetings, then it's likely you've suffered from Zoom fatigue. Zoom fatigue is a feeling of exhaustion or burnout associated with the overuse of virtual meeting platforms. Of course, this is not just isolated to Zoom but all digital platforms featuring face-to-face or video-to-video communications.

How Zoom Fatigue Happens

In the first of its kind peer-reviewed article, communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson outlined four consequences of prolonged video chats that contribute to the feelings brought on by Zoom fatigue. These included:

  • Eye Gaze at a Close Distance
  • Cognitive Load
  • An All-Day Mirror
  • Reduced Mobility

Let's take a closer look at each.

Up Close Eye Gazing

Cultural norms usually dictate that many of us don't stare into each other's eyes or faces very often unless we are in an intimate relationship together. In his article, Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, Bailenson refers to what happens when people crowd into an elevator as an example. Essentially, when we are forced to be in close contact with other people, we often compensate for that closeness by averting our eyes to the ground instead of looking into a stranger's face. When we are stared at, especially while speaking, our bodies react, causing higher levels of stress, insecurity, and anxiousness. When faced with a Zoom or teleconference call, where we have to have our videos on, we face a similar reaction because we feel we are being watched or stared at. This causes us to spend more energy than usual trying to cope with it.

Cognitive Load

When speaking to someone in person, we humans pick up on specific non-verbal cues and apply meaning to them. However, when communicating over a video call, either those non-verbal cues don't exist as expected, or they tend to be over exaggerated to increase the likelihood of receiving them. For example, some studies show that people speak about 15% louder on video calls than in person. This extra volume forces the person speaking to work harder than they normally would. Also mentioned in the article is the exaggeration of cues. A nod or gesture showing recognition or interest in something someone says comes naturally to most people. But over a video call, those natural responses become more conscious and less understandable.

An All-Day Mirror

Seeing oneself in a mirror can cause negative feelings and stress–especially for women. Since most online meeting software shows us our own image, this can be equivalent to holding a mirror up to your face several times and for several hours throughout the day. The specific impact of this through videoconferencing isn't yet known. Still, studies involving mirrors show that it can cause many adverse effects and emotions depending on how one views themselves or worries about how others view them.

Reduced Mobility

The fourth consequence identified by Bailenson is reduced mobility caused by the necessity of staying within your camera's field of view. Most cameras are stationary, and employees must remain aware of where they are. During in-person meetings, people move. They stand, stretch, doodle on a notepad, or even get up and draw on a board or grab a drink of water. This reduced mobility causes an unnatural stillness. Not only that but a lack of movement has been shown to reduce understanding, retention, and creativity in meetings. Plainly put, we are just not at our best when we have to stay still, and video conference norms cause us to stay in one spot for long periods.

Why Zoom Fatigue Matters

We need to understand the importance of Zoom fatigue because when we need to do deep, engaging work, primarily through a video conference, we may need to lower our expectations or change how we operate. If your next meeting is about an important piece of work that heavily impacts the direction of your company, then having a room full of worn-out Zoombies (Zoom + zombies) might not be ideal. Instead, you may want to incorporate some ways to help them overcome their fatigue or prepare them ahead of time to increase the likelihood of you hosting a successful online gathering.

How to Combat Zoom Fatigue

Fortunately, there are ways to combat or prevent Zoom fatigue for yourself, your team members, and your online audiences.

1. Limit the Number of Meetings

Unless you're the boss, perhaps you don't have this power. But, when you can eliminate some meetings from your day or week, it can help you overcome Zoom fatigue. If you are the boss, consider whether a meeting needs to take place or if it would make more sense to find an other way to share.

2. Use Alternate Communication Methods

Speaking of email or chat, consider different ways to connect to your colleagues. With all the chat options available now (Slack, Google chat, Microsoft Teams, etc.), there are many different ways to connect. Consider changing a meeting to a new format instead. Even some more engaging platforms (such as Klaxoon) could make the meetings different and more enjoyable.

3. Provide Transition Time Between Meetings

One of the more taxing parts of online meetings is that when you have meetings back-to-back, there doesn't provide much time to get up, move around, and reset. At least in a traditional office setting, you have to scurry to the next conference room. When you're in charge of meetings, try your best to end a few minutes early, or even schedule 25 minutes instead of 30. Providing just five minutes can help colleagues reduce their Zoom fatigue.

4. Make Cameras Optional

One of the reasons Zoom fatigue happens is the constant face-to-face encounters. Unless there is a reason to turn your camera on, consider turning it off during some meetings. Of course, there are now studies showing that turning your camera on can help your career, but it could be beneficial to leave it off when you can.

5. Discourage Multitasking

When everything is at your fingertips and notifications are dinging every couple of seconds, it can be challenging to concentrate on the task at hand. While it may be necessary sometimes or seem like a great idea to get other work done while a virtual meeting takes place,this kind of multitasking only adds to the stress and fatigue you're feeling.Try your best to turn over your phone and minimize your other browser windows. Perhaps taking a break from your other work is the refresher you need.

6. Use Background Filters

As Zoom began taking over remote work, digital backgrounds became more popular. Partly because many people suddenly had to build makeshift offices in their homes, partly because family or pets were around. Using background filters could help you concentrate better on what's infront of you instead of worrying about the people, pets, or untidiness behind.

7. Encourage Company-Wide Changes

Those in management positions should be aware of Zoom fatigue and the issues it can cause for colleagues around the virtual office. By recognizing this potential problem, you can show your employees that you care about their well-being and help them be more productive in their work. Try different strategies to lessen fatigue and improve engagement amongst your team. Share it with your organization when something works to see if company-wide changes could be made. Many companies have adopted "No-Meeting Day" or "Deep Focus Day" to help prevent meeting fatigue in their employees.

These types of changes might not come naturally to you and your office. Do your part to educate and encourage everyone to understand what can happen if unengaged Zoombies take over your office culture.

How to Build Engagement of Your Online Audience

Now that we've discussed Zoom fatigue and its repercussions let's discuss building more engagement during your virtual meetings. Whether it's a presentation, workshop, brainstorming, or weekly roundup, it's essential to know the best practices for increasing everyone's efforts and efficiencies for your team.

What Happens When Engagement Lacks

In traditional settings, when someone asks a question, it's common for someone in the room to provide an answer. You can even use your body language or eye contact to elicit responses from specific people. Unfortunately, for online meetings, this is not the case. Awkward silences and extended pauses have become common place. They can cause anxiety in either the presenter or the people in the meeting.

One of the reasons this happens is the lack of nonverbal cues in a virtual meeting. No one knows who a person is actually looking at–most likely, they are just looking at themselves or reading an email. Also, unless you are an active speaker during online meetings, you are likely on mute. This means that you have to make an effort to unmute yourself so you can speak. A third reason is not knowing when someone else might talk instead. When in-person, you can recognize someone's forward posture or see them prepare themselves to speak. This is much more difficult online.

When these moments happen, they can suck the life out of the virtual room and cause the meeting to feel uneasy and unproductive.

Tips to Improve Engagement

So, what can you do to help re-engage your audience and get something productive out of your meeting? Here are a few tips to try.

Tip #1 - Start Before the Meeting Begins

Many of us spend decent chunks of our days in meetings. It can sometimes be difficult to discern one meeting from another. It can help us know what will be discussed before we step into the virtual room. Consider sending out a message to the group to remind them of the objectives of the meeting. The message shouldn't be long but instead, focus solely on what you hope the meeting accomplishes. Try to use simple language and bullet points.

Tip #2 - Focus on Guidance and Facilitation

Hosting or leading a meeting can be stressful, and it takes a lot of work. Invite others to help you lead the discussion or take on specific roles when you can. When someone else starts speaking, it causes a natural shift that others will notice. It also breaks up the potential monotony of hearing the same person speak the entire time. Instead of just taking on the hosting role yourself, try to facilitate discussion and ask specific questions of specific people. Encourage others to chime in and give yourself a break from doing all the talking.

Tip #3 - Use Icebreakers

Icebreakers aren't just for people who don't know each other. Icebreakers are a great way to start a meeting because it allows everyone a moment to participate and, in most cases, get a good laugh. Consider starting your sessions with an icebreaker to naturally encourage engagement and early participation.

Tip #4 - Utilize Tools to Help Participation

Not everyone likes to speak up. This is true in online meetings as much as during traditional in-person meetings. It may be more likely for some to send a chat or tap one of the built-in emojis on the virtual platform. Most online meeting services offer some sort of non-verbal communication tool. Encourage your group to use all the features available to them and not just rely on someone's voice. You can also utilize digital whiteboards or other tools like Klaxoon to help you get the most out of everyone in the meeting.

Tip #5 - Ask Questions

We communicate through statements and questions in our everyday lives; "How's your day?" "What did you think of that?" Yet, sometimes, in meetings, we forget to ask questions and instead focus on only making statements. Find ways to weave in questions, even if you know the answer, to encourage others to participate along with you. It may be helpful to ask specific people questions and force the interaction a little more. Just be sure to be consistent and don't catch the person completely off guard. Let them know ahead of time (either before the meeting or during a personal chat) that you plan to call on them to avoid any discontent or anxiety.

Conclusion

As the working world shifts to this new normal of online meetings and virtual gatherings, managers and employees need to understand how this shift affects them and their work. By preparing ourselves to combat issues like Zoom fatigue, we can build better engagement and do a better job.

And, at the end of the day, everyone wants to do better work and feel more appreciated.

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