Zoom fatigue

« previous post | next post »

There are dozens of articles Out There on "Zoom fatigue", with a wide range of ideas about causes and cures.

Gianpiero Petriglieri offered the BBC a couple of hypotheses about why "Zoom calls drain your energy":

Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, says Petriglieri. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.

Silence is another challenge, he adds. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology.” It also makes people uncomfortable. One 2014 study by German academics showed that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped our views of people negatively: even delays of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.

Marissa Shuffler suggested that

if we are physically on camera, we are very aware of being watched. “When you're on a video conference, you know everybody's looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” It’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen, or not to be conscious of how they behave in front of the camera.

There are lots of other hypotheses Out There as well — we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues; we feel anxious about our remote workspace; there aren't any "water-cooler catch-ups"; virtual meetings blur the work/life balance; it's easier to get distracted and peek at email or phone messages; different meetings are in different cultural contexts, but you're always in the same physical place; and so on.

The most interesting (or at least unexpected) idea, in my opinion, is that it's a sort of intimacy overdose. From Beckie Supiano, "Why is Zoom So Exhausting?", The Chronicle of Higher Education 4/23/2020:

Using Zoom — at least with the standard settings — means looking right into other people’s faces at close range, says Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of its Virtual Human Interaction Lab. That isn’t what people do in a classroom, or a meeting, or most social situations. “In the real world,” Bailenson says, “when someone gets that close up, we get aroused. There’s probably some type of a conflict situation, from an evolutionary standpoint — or we’re going to be intimate with them.”

Professors, Bailenson says, can mitigate this dynamic by playing around with their settings, perhaps using an external camera or a second monitor. Or they might consider a different kind of platform, says Bailenson, who has provided consulting to or received academic grant funding from many of the big players in virtual-reality technology.

“The most important thing I can say,” he says, “is think really hard: Does this conversation get augmented by having everyone see one another’s faces?”

But the one aspect of this, as far as I know that has actually been studied, as far as I know, is the effect of coding and transmission latency. I first heard about this issue when I worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories after 1975, from the folks working on digital speech coding and transmission. Thus J. W. Forgie, "Speech transmission in packet switched store and forward networks", Proc. NCC 1975:

Although delay has no effect on the intelligibility or naturalness of a speech signal, when it is introduced into a conversational situation, it becomes readily detectable and can have disruptive effects on the conversation. With the anticipated use of stationary satellites for speech communication, experiments were undertaken to evaluate the effects of delays of the order of 0.6 seconds which would be expected in the round-trip time to such satellites. The results showed that the effects of delays of this amount or more were largely of a psychological nature. Telephone conversations normally involve frequent interaction between the participants even though one person may be doing most of the talking for an extended period. When the reinforcing feedback of an expected "yes", "really?", or whatever is delayed, the talker gets the feeling that the other party is not paying proper attention, and he tends to become irritated. Similarly, when the other party tries to interrupt the speaker, he becomes annoyed because the speaker appears to be ignoring his attempt to interrupt.

Packet-switched networks (like the internet) create the additional problem of glitches — with a trade-off between glitch probability and longer lag times:

The variability of the delay in a store-and-forward network also poses problems for speech communication. For example, the transmitter may chop the input speech into chunks of equal length and give the corresponding messages to the net at equal time intervals. When they arrive at the receiver, the time between messages is no longer likely to be uniform but will generally exhibit considerable variation, and the receiver must take appropriate action to compensate for this jitter. […]

When the receiver is reconstituting the speech from the message stream, and a message has been abnormally delayed in the net, a point may be reached where all the available messages have been used up. If this point corresponds to a pause in the input speech, all will be well. Otherwise a gap or "glitch" will be introduced into the output speech. […]

Unlike delay, which has a primarily psychological effect on a conversation, glitches can effect the intelligibility of the output speech. […]

In order to keep the glitch probability low, the receiver will have to introduce some additional delay in the speech stream to smooth the jitter in message arrival times. The magnitude of the smoothing delay required to achieve a glitch probability less than some given value will depend on the dispersion of network transit times.

In the early 90s, Amit Shah et al. "Multimedia over FDDI" (Proceedings 17th Conference on Local Computer Networks, 1992) "decided that the maximum end-to-end tolerable latency was 100 ms.", summarizing their interpretation of the situation in this table:

Anyone who's taken part in distributed virtual meetings knows that delays and glitches, whatever their actual distribution, are well beyond "annoying".

See also Brid O'Conaill et al., "Conversations over video conferences: An evaluation of the spoken aspects of video-mediated communication." Human-computer interaction (1993) — and the intimidatingly many other papers linked at interruptions.net.



  1. mg said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 12:04 pm

    For me, one of the most exhausting and frustrating things about Zoom group discussions (whether work or social) is trying to get a word in edgewise. The usual ways of inserting oneself into a natural pause, however small, often don't work – especially if more than one person is trying to say something. This is especially frustrating for those of us raised in NYC, where overlapping conversation is the norm but doesn't work on Zoom.

    [(myl) As the quote from Forgie 1975 says, "When the reinforcing feedback of an expected "yes", "really?", or whatever is delayed, the talker gets the feeling that the other party is not paying proper attention, and he tends to become irritated. Similarly, when the other party tries to interrupt the speaker, he becomes annoyed because the speaker appears to be ignoring his attempt to interrupt." ]

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 12:17 pm

    Perhaps I am in a tiny minority, but I personally don't perceive any problem with video teleconferencing at all. I use Skype all the time, Zoom when I have to, and as far as I am concerned they are just another way of talking to people. And as one of the "over-70, so you must lock yourself away from the rest of humanity" group, "talking to people" is something I really miss, so teleconferencing is for me not just neutral but seriously positive.

    [(myl) I guess there are some people who find video conferencing annoying even in moderate doses, but real "Zoom fatigue" seems to apply mainly to those who are spending 6-7 hours a day in such meetings.]

  3. John Shutt said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 12:54 pm

    Fwiw: Speaking as a self-diagnosed aspie (that's Asperger's Syndrome, on the mild end of the autistic spectrum), I'm kind of fascinated by the phenomenon of ordinary ("neuro-typical") people learning what it's like to be exhausted by social interactions. (Cf. this.) The effect oddly rhymes with another, which I'd already observed, that ordinary people have been experiencing what it's like to be cooped up at home most of the time, which hasn't been that much of a change for me (though even I have found it a bit extreme) — and, turns out, while I've been struggling for years to "get out more", apparently most people if caught in my lifestyle start to go stir-crazy pretty quickly.

  4. Tim Leonard said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 12:55 pm

    More aspects of this have been studied than you acknowledge, starting with work on Bell's Picture Phone. I'm more familiar with work done at Olivetti Research Laboratory in Cambridge England in the late 1980s, where I remember, for example, that experiments showed it was helpful to limit visibility of the local display of a remote participant to match what the local camera showed to the remote participant. That is, if you could see them, they should be able to see you, and vice versa. A rule that's broken by all the typically used current hardware setups.

  5. Yuval Pinter said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 1:58 pm

    That 1975 paper title was a challenge to parse, but I think I got it? (w/o reading through)

    Speech transmission in [[packet switched] [[store and forward] networks]]

  6. Richard Rubenstein said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 3:57 pm

    "Packet-switched networks (like the internet) create the additional of glitches…"

    Exacerbating the already-impressive glitch-additioning ability of the unaided brain. ;-)

    [(myl) Thanks — fixed now. (Maintaining my well-deserved reputation as the world's worst proofreader.]

  7. Julian said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 5:08 pm

    'Latency over 600ms makes speech unintelligible.'
    What does 'latency' mean here, please?
    Glitches? – that is, random bits of a speech are delayed? Interference when delayed and undelayed signals are both audible?
    I ask because, if an entire speech is delayed uniformly, for example in a teleconference situation, I can see how that would cause the psychological problems you mention in relation to disrupted turn-taking, but I can't see how it would affect intelligibility.

    [(myl) I think that they mean participant-to-participant delay, athough I agree that it doesn't make sense to assert that this leads to unintelligibility rather than to problems in conversational coordination. Maybe they're talking about audio/video offsets? There's also a possible connection to Delayed Auditory Feedback.]

  8. Chips Mackinolty said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 6:25 pm

    Then there's Zoomatoid Arsethritis (ZA).

    ZA is a chronic, or long-term, inflammatory condition. Like its counterpart, Rheumatoid Arthritis, it is considered an autoimmune disease, in which your immune system attacks the tissues of your own body. In ZA, the immune system mostly attacks tissues in the buttocks. It is associated with long periods spent hunched over a screen attending Zoom meetings, creating pains in the arse and a sore lower back.

    In some people, ZA seems to run its course and does not gradually get worse. In others, ZA gets progressively worse and leads to the destruction of joints in the lower spine. ZA can greatly affect your ability to move and do normal tasks. ZA can appear at any age, but most patients are between the ages of 30 and 60. ZA can affect children and, when it does, it is termed Juvenile ZA and appears to be closely associate with home schooling.

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 6:51 pm

    There's a related phenomenon in which on-the-scene news correspondents converse by satellite link with anchors in the studio. This frequently results in perceptible pauses between an anchor's question and the remote correspondent's reply.

    I've often wondered why people in that business don't seem to have adopted the strategy of talking over each other's handoff phrases ("Give us your take on that, Christiane" or "Back to you, Anderson") to compensate for latency and avoid that awkward on-air pause.

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 2:38 am

    The last couple months have indeed left me seriously fed up with teleconferencing (not that I particularly liked it before).

    Haven't much used Zoom in particular though – acc'd my employer it can't be said to have security holes because that would imply there being secure bits between the holes.

  11. Nancy Friedman said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 8:50 am

    For those who know a little Yiddish, the term that's going around is "oysgezoomt."

  12. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 11:29 am

    By sheer coincidence, I participated in my very first Zoom meeting last evening. It lasted about an hour, with about half a dozen participants. My reaction to the various explanations for why it is so unpleasant is "all of the above." This is a committee I have sat on for a couple years, with mostly the same people, whom I know well. It definitely was a different dynamic, and not in a good way, than the same group meeting in person. I have one complaint to add. I was on a tablet, since my desktop lacks and webcam, which last I checked can't be had for love or money. The comfortable distance between the tablet and my face was awkward: a bit close for my distance lenses, but if I tilted my head to use the reading lenses of my bifocals my face was at a very unfortunate angle, literally looking down my nose at everyone. I will have to check to see if webcams are available again.

  13. John Swindle said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 11:49 am

    I suspect Richard Hershberger has it right ("all of the above"). As to not having a webcam—supposedly there's an app that will allow one to use a suitably positioned mobile device (smartphone, electronic tablet) for the camera and a desktop computer for video output and control. Haven't tried it yet.

  14. Ed M said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

    I spend 6-7 hours most weekdays on Microsoft Teams calls — similar, but different experience from Zoom. My teammates have been on these calls for a few years — well before the current Zoompocolypse. This is a group of about 100 who meet in groups of 2 to 20 mostly. By common but informal agreement we never use the video feature in Teams — just screen / document sharing and voice. I don't recall why the team decided against video, but we do not feel we're missing out. Video business meetings seem forced and stilted, and somewhat invasive — for the viewer. Voice-only meetings leave room for people to do what they're going to do anyway: read email, chat messages, go on mute and make a cup of coffee, walk around the room while talking, or whatever. Perhaps the video meetings seem fatiguing because it is like a crowd staring in the windows of your house while you're working. Best thing is to forget the video — it doesn't make work easier.

  15. Chester Draws said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 9:54 pm

    Best thing is to forget the video — it doesn't make work easier.

    Bit tricky though if you are trying to teach Trigonometry!

  16. DCA said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 11:02 pm

    My approach to the "teach trig" issue is to add another participant: me, again, on my smartphone, with screen broadcast. I go to the camera app, and just let it stare at a piece of paper that I write on (needs to be with a Sharpie, though). The students get this pciture, my voice, and sometimes my video. Not as good as a blackboard, but it is OK, I think.

  17. Marie said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 1:21 pm

    I have to be very careful that I don't see myself speak on a Zoom meeting. I have a small hearing loss and instinctively lip read a bit since I was a child. There is often a delay of some sort between what I say and and how my face looks on the screen. When it happens, It's almost like trying to speak over an echo of oneself on a phone line. So I choose a setup where the video of me is small (so that I can still make sure my face is onscreen) but not large enough that a lack of synch causes a problem. It's primarily on sibilants that I get hung up by this, and it's really disconcerting. My mouth muscles get confused, and it starts to hurt. It took a week or two of using Zoom to figure out what was going on.

RSS feed for comments on this post