The long-anticipated return to the office is beginning to become a reality, but it is unlikely that we will ever return to the pre-pandemic model of work. Covid-19 has killed the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working culture in most organisations in favour of a hybrid approach: next year, more than double the proportion of employees are expected to work from home full time than before the pandemic. However, new research shows that a long-term shift towards remote work will not be without its challenges.
The newfound reliance on video-conferencing technology negatively affects workers emotionally and cognitively, according to research from London South Bank University (LSBU). Communicating via video tools such as Zoom prevents us from effectively reading body language and other social signals, while simultaneously overloading us with other sensory cues, creating a higher emotional burden for employees, says Karin Moser, one of the researchers and professor of organisational behaviour at LSBU.
This drain on cognitive capacity is perpetuated by the constant self-monitoring that comes from being watched and from seeing your on-screen reflection. “We know from decades of research that knowing that you’re observed by a camera increases self-monitoring, which means you’re more conscious of how you behave, what you look like, what you say,” says Moser. “Most people find this stressful or uncomfortable.”
In addition, it turns out that this so-called “Zoom fatigue” phenomenon affects already disadvantaged groups disproportionately. New research from Stanford University and the University of Gothenburg finds that almost three times as many women as men feel “extremely fatigued” by video conferencing, with younger, non-white and introverted people also more likely to be affected.
Part of the reason for this is that women tend to have more punishing video-conferencing schedules: more than a quarter of women in the study reported that the average length of calls was over an hour, compared with 19% of men, with a much shorter average break taken between meetings.
While Covid-19 forced organisations to implement quick fixes, the new normal will necessitate an overhaul of remote working policy and technology or risk exacerbating existing social and economic inequalities. In many cases, this will necessitate completely new business models, says Moser.
“If we take hybrid working models seriously, then we need a shift of cost over to the home office or the local co-working space,” she says. “This will be one of the economic challenges for businesses in the future, together with leading and collaborating remotely and making the best use of the digital media.”
How to combat Zoom fatigue
Some businesses are already beginning to act. A number of companies have reached out to find out more about so-called Zoom fatigue, says Géraldine Fauville, one of the researchers and assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg, but “it will take some time for us to establish new norms around new ways of working”.
There are steps that employees can take to mitigate against burn out. Disabling self-view, increasing movement by using a standing desk, and reducing the length and frequency of video calls will all help to reduce the occurrence of Zoom fatigue, says Fauville. Ultimately, however, “the responsibility of addressing and mitigating Zoom fatigue should not be placed on individuals, because that could just intensify inequity and it’s not always up to each employee to design their own video conference schedule”.
Banks have been among the first to take action. Investment banking giant Citigroup announced a Zoom-free Friday policy in March, banning the use of video calls for internal meetings once a week in response to the toll taken on employee well-being by remote work over the past year.
“That’s exactly the kind of stuff that needs to happen,” says Kevin Turner, digital workplace strategy lead EMEA at Unisys. “A lot of research says that, for higher performers, the ability to work more flexibly is going to dictate whether they stay with the current employer or look elsewhere.”
The benefits of remote work
For companies that are quick to adjust, remote working will reap benefits. Around 40% of people observed a boost in their productivity from switching to remote work, compared with 15% that saw a drag, according to research from The University of Chicago.
In the US, remote working will increase four-fold on pre-pandemic levels, according to the research, improving economic productivity by almost 5%. Over half this gain reflects time saved from less time wasted on commuting – but communicating online also makes meetings more efficient as they become “more task-focused”, says LSBU’s Moser.
In time, technology will also adapt to these challenges. Current video-conferencing providers are already looking to adjust their offerings to mitigate against Zoom fatigue with simple fixes, such as removing the self-view window after a few minutes, according to the researchers.
Innovation around cutting-edge mixed and alternative reality tech has already been hastened by the pandemic, says Unisys’ Turner.
“We’re seeing newer concepts like merged reality becoming a very powerful, real thing… and over the course of time, that becomes augmented reality or virtual reality to help drive even smarter ways of bringing us all together virtually but making us feel like we’re sitting side by side,” he says. “I can see innovation gong that way a lot more quickly — [before the pandemic] that felt like it was maybe 10, 20 years away; now, certainly within the next five years that sort of technology will be with us.”
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Amy Borrett was the resident data journalist at Tech Monitor.