Want to feel less tired? Turn your camera off

I do hope to see my students IRL this academic year, as I’m a bit tired of Teams, Zoom and other Google Meets. yes, that was an understatement. I’m also fed up with all those online meetings as I really can feel drained after a day of such virtual meetings. But a new study showed – again actually – that this feeling can be worse for those who keep their cameras on throughout those meetings. The study also shows the effects are often stronger for women and newer employees. So the good news is that a lot of people are even worse of than me. The bad news is that my students were probably right to leave their cameras off. Still, talking to a blank screen hasn’t been fun at all.

From the press release:

New research conducted by Allison Gabriel, McClelland Professor of Management and Organizations and University Distinguished Scholar in the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, suggests that the camera may be partially to blame.

Gabriel’s research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, looks at the role of cameras in employee fatigue and explores whether these feelings are worse for certain employees.

“There’s always this assumption that if you have your camera on during meetings, you are going to be more engaged,” Gabriel said. “But there’s also a lot of self-presentation pressure associated with being on camera. Having a professional background and looking ready, or keeping children out of the room are among some of the pressures.”

After a four-week experiment involving 103 participants and more than 1,400 observations, Gabriel and her colleagues found that it is indeed more tiring to have your camera on during a virtual meeting.

“When people had cameras on or were told to keep cameras on, they reported more fatigue than their non-camera using counterparts,” Gabriel said. “And that fatigue correlated to less voice and less engagement during meetings. So, in reality, those who had cameras on were potentially participating less than those not using cameras. This counters the conventional wisdom that cameras are required to be engaged in virtual meetings.”

Gabriel also found that these effects were stronger for women and for employees newer to the organization, likely due to added self-presentation pressures.

“Employees who tend to be more vulnerable in terms of their social position in the workplace, such as women and newer, less tenured employees, have a heightened feeling of fatigue when they must keep cameras on during meetings,” Gabriel said. “Women often feel the pressure to be effortlessly perfect or have a greater likelihood of child care interruptions, and newer employees feel like they must be on camera and participate in order to show productiveness.”

Gabriel suggests that expecting employees to turn cameras on during Zoom meetings is not the best way to go. Rather, she says employees should have the autonomy to choose whether or not to use their cameras, and others shouldn’t make assumptions about distractedness or productivity if someone chooses to keep the camera off.

“At the end of the day, we want employees to feel autonomous and supported at work in order to be at their best. Having autonomy over using the camera is another step in that direction,” Gabriel said.

Abstract of the study:

The COVID-19 pandemic propelled many employees into remote work arrangements, and face-to-face meetings were quickly replaced with virtual meetings. This rapid uptick in the use of virtual meetings led to much popular press discussion of virtual meeting fatigue (i.e., “Zoom fatigue”), described as a feeling of being drained and lacking energy following a day of virtual meetings. In this study, we aimed to better understand how one salient feature of virtual meetings—the camera—impacts fatigue, which may affect outcomes during meetings (e.g., participant voice and engagement). We did so through the use of a 4-week within-person experience sampling field experiment where camera use was manipulated. Drawing from theory related to self-presentation, we propose and test a model where study condition (camera on versus off) was linked to daily feelings of fatigue; daily fatigue, in turn, was presumed to relate negatively to voice and engagement during virtual meetings. We further predict that gender and organizational tenure will moderate this relationship such that using a camera during virtual meetings will be more fatiguing for women and newer members of the organization. Results of 1,408 daily observations from 103 employees supported our proposed model, with supplemental analyses suggesting that fatigue affects same-day and next-day meeting performance. Given the anticipated prevalence of remote work even after the pandemic subsides, our study offers key insights for ongoing organizational best practices surrounding virtual meetings.

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