A psychological look at the virtual working world

Guest contribution by | 11.07.2022

We are home office! In virtual meetings all day. The other people only as 4×3 cm tiles on the screen. New hour, new tiles. “Can you hear me?” – the question is still a perennial one, even after two and a half years. “Sorry, I have a hard cut!” The next meeting is already waiting. The whole thing either on the ergonomic office chair or at the height-adjustable desk in the study under the sloping roof. Fetch coffee, take coffee away. Or to put it in the words of the great indie rockers The Thermals: Liquid in, liquid out – that’s what life is all about!

Don’t misunderstand my somewhat cynical introduction: I really appreciate the home office and spend between three and five days there every week – depending on my mood, team needs and client requirements. Still, after two and a half years, I feel pretty drained from the constant staring at the screen, the seamless transitions and the lack of time to prepare for appointments. “Feeling” then brings us to the big problem of the debate on the hybrid world of work. Everyone has a subjective opinion about virtual collaboration and the home office. I do not exclude myself from this. What unfortunately gets short shrift are the facts. More than two and a half years after the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, we now have a lot of data on the effects of the new world of work. In this article, therefore, I want to break away from my subjective opinion and look at what is known so far about the psychological consequences of virtual collaboration.

Zoom fatigue: the great virtual meeting fatigue

When I look around me, many colleagues, partners and clients feel the same way: their schedules are full and breaks or even focus time are hard to find in the course of the day. In many conversations I hear one thing above all: exhaustion. The term zoom fatigue has been firmly established for this feeling for some time: on the one hand, it describes the tiredness one feels after a day full of virtual meetings, but on the other hand, it also describes the permanent fatigue since the switch to virtual meetings. After an initial study by the Institute for Employment and Employability1, the worldwide study situation on the reality of zoom fatigue is now so clear that the German Social Accident Insurance has already published a (very good, by the way!) practical guide on the subject at the end of 2021.2

Is it all psychology or what?

But what are the reasons for zoom fatigue? Actually, the hybrid working world offers optimal opportunities for a better work-life balance! A look at social and media psychology, which studied virtual interactions long before Corona, helps to answer this question. Current organisational psychology studies on work productivity in the home office also shed light on what permanent virtual collaboration does to us. After an extensive analysis of the research, three main reasons for our meeting fatigue can be identified:

  1. We take too few breaks.
  2. We overestimate our productivity.
  3. Too often the camera is being switched on.

The last point, in particular, is a tough one!

1. We take too few breaks

The initial situation: constantly online and in a meeting marathon.

There is no question that we are busy all day in the home office. Not only the subjective view of the environment shows a permanent workload. A study by Microsoft also demonstrates this with figures on the use of MS Teams, next to Zoom the most frequently used collaboration tool.3 Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of meetings has increased by 55%, the number of Teams chats by 48% and the use of MS Teams after hours by a whole 69%. Data from the World Economic Forum also shows that the pandemic has led to a massive increase in weekly working hours worldwide.4 Microsoft has also found that activity in MS Teams on Saturdays and Sundays has increased by more than 200%. The increase in working hours is inevitably accompanied by meeting marathons. On the one hand, it has become more important to coordinate specifically when people no longer meet on site. For another, it is very easy to invite people to virtual meetings. Today, meeting invitations often seem like the CC recipient list of emails: better one person too many than one too few! The usual start on the hour or the half hour makes for a hard pace in the working day, also because 30 minutes is the perceived minimum duration of an appointment. The result: we move seamlessly from one virtual appointment to the next throughout the day.

The psychology behind it: Without breaks, the brain suffers!

The positive effect of breaks on work performance and mental and physical health has been known for years.5 Noch wenig untersucht ist jedoch die Bedeutung von Pausen während Meeting-Marathons. However, the importance of breaks during meeting marathons has been little studied. A study by Microsoft has now shown for the first time what effect breaks between virtual meetings have on the brain.6 n the first experiment of the study, the participants had to take part in four 30-minute meetings with different tasks without a break. In the second experiment, they had a 10-minute break after each meeting. During the experiments, the participants’ brain waves were measured with an EEG. Three findings can be drawn from the data:

  1. Breaks between meetings help the brain to recover: without breaks, stress-induced brain activity continues to rise and increasingly hinders cognitive performance. A break of only ten minutes, on the other hand, leads to a “reset” of brain activity.
  2. The seamless transition from meeting to meeting creates stress: stress-induced brain activity peaked during the transition phase.
  3. Breaks help focus attention: after active breaks with short meditation exercises, participants’ brain waves showed an improved ability to focus and cognitively participate in subsequent meetings.

The first step to the solution: integrate micro-breaks!

Well, it’s obvious in this case: we should definitely schedule breaks in our daily work routine! By this I don’t just mean targeted lunch or coffee breaks, but times without virtual meetings. In particular, so-called micro-breaks of 5 – 10 minutes can help to regenerate between virtual meetings and lower the stress level. It is important not to just sit at the computer during these breaks, but to move around or do some breathing exercises instead. This supports learning processes and makes it easier to remember the contents of the appointment before the break. Incidentally, this can easily be regulated throughout the company, e.g. by specifying in a first step that appointments start 5 minutes after the hour/half hour and end 5 minutes before the hour/half hour by default. Once you have created some space in the calendars, you can systematically work on improving the efficiency of virtual collaboration through clear rules (regarding agenda, goals, participation in meetings) and an increase in asynchronous communication via chats and task management tools such as Asana, Trello or Monday.

2. We overestimate our productivity

The starting position: We work more, but do less!

From an economic perspective, one could assume that the more work leads to higher productivity and thus to increased value creation. This assumption is supported by the results of a large DAK study: Employees feel more productive in the home office than in the office.7 Other studies also come to similar conclusions. However, one problem with qualitative studies is that the results are based on the subjective assessments of the respondents. Even though quantitative studies are still rare due to the difficulty of measuring productivity in knowledge work, there are indications that the subjective assessment is not entirely correct. For example, a large study by the Institute for the Future of Work shows that when active working time increases by 27%, the number of tasks completed increases by only 1%. In fact, there is a 12% decrease in calculated productivity! Another study by Microsoft demonstrates that in the home office, collaboration across team boundaries declines despite a general increase in virtual communication.8 The authors conclude that this will lead to a loss of innovative power in the medium term, as this depends primarily on activity in loosely coupled networks in the company.

The psychology behind it: We overestimate our performance.

So are we merely busy in the home office, but not productive? The data at least indicate a discrepancy between subjectively perceived and real productivity. But how does this discrepancy come about? A psychological effect could play a role here: The overconfidence bias refers to the innate and robust tendency of humans to overestimate their own performance. This cognitive bias has been proven in numerous experiments. For example, 80 % of Germans consider themselves to be above-average drivers. More than 50 % of American college students think they belong to the top 10 %. From a purely statistical point of view, of course, this is an impossibility. It can therefore be assumed that there are also misjudgements with regard to the subjective assessment of one’s own productivity. In addition, more complex aspects of productivity, such as the extent of cross-functional cooperation or the innovative strength of the company, are difficult to evaluate from a subjective perspective.

The first step to the solution: make yourself measurable!

The data suggests that part of the great fatigue comes from working more and getting less done. Since we are not always subjectively aware of this in our daily work, one solution may be to make our work visible and measurable. I am not talking here about individual performance management or meaningless KPIs that only measure the output but not the added value created. Choosing the appropriate methods can be a first step here: Kanban, for example, helps to make the flow of work visible and optimise it at team level. The principle is primarily based on reducing the number of tasks that are processed in parallel – in this way, not only the individual productivity can be improved, but also that of the entire team, without increasing time expenditure. Objective and Key Results (OKR) help to achieve team and company goals transparently and iteratively with suitable metrics. Productivity is thus objectified and no longer perceived subjectively. By the way, these approaches also work excellently in the virtual space!

3. Too often the camera is being switched on

The starting point: social interaction cannot be transferred 1:1 into the virtual space.

The title may sound a little heretical. If we don’t meet in the office, then at least everyone should turn on the camera in the virtual meeting! Personally, I also prefer meetings with the camera on. But as already described in the previous chapters, it is less a matter of personal preference than of scientific facts. According to a recent study, the camera being switched on is the main trigger of zoom fatigue.9 he number and length of virtual meetings, on the other hand, hardly contribute to it. At first glance, this result seems paradoxical. Isn’t man a profoundly social being? But this is precisely where the problem lies: social interaction in analogue space works differently from virtual interaction in teams or Zoom. In particular, non-verbal behaviour, which consists of facial expressions and gestures, follows certain rules that have evolved over the course of evolution.10 In virtual space, these rules are partially suspended.

The psychology behind it: The fragility of social interaction in virtual space.

Social interaction in virtual space was already a central area of research in social and media psychology in the 25 years before the Corona pandemic. The data situation is therefore much better here than in other areas of virtual cooperation. In essence, three psychologically explainable reasons can be identified why the switched-on camera contributes so massively to zoom fatigue.

1. Continuous eye contact with others: Eye contact is an enormously powerful social stimulus. When we look into each other’s eyes, we are aware that we are the focus of the other person’s attention. This is associated with a positive physical state of arousal and increased attention, which in turn promotes the opening of communication. However, if eye contact lasts too long, the effect is reversed: instead of adrenaline, the stress hormone cortisol is released, the state of arousal turns into pure stress and we feel increasingly uncomfortable. Sustained eye contact is an aggressive dominance gesture not only in the animal kingdom but also in humans. Of course, no one consciously shows such behaviour in the zoom call. But our brain does not know that. First of all, it soberly perceives that we have direct eye contact with one or even several people. This increases the stress level in virtual meetings considerably when the camera is switched on.11 This effect is reinforced by the fact that we usually see our conversation partners on the screen at a distance of 50 – 70 cm. Such a small social distance is usually reserved for intimate contacts such as family, partners or close friends.

2. Continuous eye contact with oneself: It is not much better if we have continuous eye contact with ourselves. If we have turned on our own camera and continuously see our reflection in the mirror, then the effect of objective self-attention occurs, which has been researched in social psychology for more than 50 years. When we look in a mirror, we automatically begin to evaluate ourselves. This evaluation is significantly more critical than when we do not see ourselves. Accordingly, a large number of studies have shown that self-observation leads to negative feelings. The consequences of constant self-viewing in virtual meetings over a long period of time have not yet been conclusively investigated. However, it is known from previous studies that increased objective self-attention has an influence on the development of depression.12

3. Increased cognitive load: The cognitive load can be thought of as the load on the CPU of a computer. We are only really efficient when we are not working under full load. Face-to-face “analogue” communication works effortlessly, it is virtually our default mode. Despite this effortlessness, however, communication is very complex. In the virtual space, verbal and non-verbal signals are much more emphasised. Studies have shown that participants in virtual meetings speak louder and accentuate gestures such as head shaking, nodding, shoulder shrugging or hand signals significantly more compared to non-virtual communication. At the same time, it is more difficult to perceive subtle non-verbal cues in virtual meetings. The more difficult sending and receiving of signals thus leads to an increase in cognitive load. The use of communication media also increases the cognitive load. How much it increases depends on the type of media. For example, one study showed that we perform significantly worse at solving a task in video interactions than during telephone calls.13 This suggests that our audiovisual mode of interaction in virtual meetings ties up considerable (and unnecessary?) cognitive resources.

The first step towards a solution: find a pragmatic compromise!

There are two things everyone can do right away: hide their own image in the virtual meeting so they don’t see themselves all the time, and reach for the good old telephone more often to reduce the cognitive load. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for designing virtual collaboration. The problem is complex: always turning on the camera, as many companies claim to do, does not seem to make sense against the background of the negative effects described. However, if everyone is in the home office and the camera is always off, the sense of unity is gradually lost. The first step should therefore be for teams to take stock:

  • What types and formats of collaboration do we have?
  • What works better virtually, what is enriched by presence?
  • When is it really important to turn on the camera in virtual meetings?
  • Can the camera only be switched on in stages during longer meetings, e.g. during discussions, but not when just listening?

Gradually, a pragmatic hybrid working mode can be worked out in which the advantages of different forms of collaboration come to bear and the cognitive load is reduced.

Summary

So it’s all psychology, or what? Indeed, permanent and non-stop virtual collaboration can have negative psychological consequences that may not always be subjectively noticeable for the individual. It is important that both companies and individual employees are aware of these effects in order to be able to prevent negative consequences.

However, the psychology of virtual collaboration is just another stone in the mosaic of the hybrid working world, which is still too often reduced to simple questions like “home office: yes or no?” and “camera on or off? In order for hybrid collaboration with its pronounced virtual components to function well for both companies and employees in the long term, it must be viewed and designed holistically. There should be no rigid sets of rules. Instead, organisations must develop an orientation framework for virtual cooperation that incorporates objective data instead of subjective opinions. Ultimately, however, teams must decide how to live this orientation framework, taking into account individual staff needs.

 

Hinweise (some in German):

[1] Zoom-Fatigue – Institut für Beschäftigung und Employability (ibe-ludwigshafen.de)
[2] Praxishilfe „Zoom-Fatigue“ | DGUV Publikationen
[3] A pulse on employees’ wellbeing, six months into the pandemic – Microsoft 365 Blog
[4] How has COVID-19 affected average working hours? | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
[5] BAuA – baua: Bericht – Psychische Gesundheit in der Arbeitswelt – Pausen – Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin
[6] Research Proves Your Brain Needs Breaks (microsoft.com)
[7] DAK-Studie: Homeoffice-Potenzial ist fast ausgeschöpft | DAK-Gesundheit
[8] The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers | Nature Human Behaviour
[9] The fatiguing effects of camera use in virtual meetings: A within-person field experiment. – PsycNET (apa.org)
[10] Nonverbal Communication Skills: 19 Types, Theories and Findings (positivepsychology.com)
[11] Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue · Volume 2, Issue 1 (apaopen.org)
[12] Self-focused attention, gender, gender role, and vulnerability to negative affect. – PsycNET (apa.org)
[13] The Cognitive and Interpersonal Costs of Video: Media Psychology: Vol 1, No 4 (tandfonline.com)

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Dr. Ulrich Pfeiffer

Dr. Ulrich Pfeiffer

Ulrich Pfeiffer is head of the Agile Transformation & New Work consulting division at ADVIA GmbH. After studying computational linguistics and neuroscience, he completed his doctorate in psychology on the topic of human-machine interaction. Since then, he has been working on the sustainable and human-centred transformation of organisations in the context of digitalisation. He advises companies on new organisational forms, hybrid working models and strategies for the digital future. As a key note speaker, he has made it his mission to underpin developments in the new world of work with scientific facts.