Feeling “Zoomed-out?” Here’s how to Zone in on Your Next Virtual Meeting

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the “new normal” of practicing social distancing by virtually conducting business can be an eye-opening experience.

Perhaps this includes an unprecedent explosion of virtual appointments popping up on your work calendar. Zoom, Google Hangout and Skype meetings with co-workers. Conference calls with clients. Webinars with trainers. Not to mention FaceTime and Snapchats and addictive check-ins to your email inbox, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

If virtual connections have you busier that a long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs, most likely you are feeling more exhausted at the end of your workday than ever before. You are not alone. “Zoom fatigue” and “Webinar coma” are real, because we are inclined to pay attention by looking into the computer camera without taking any customary visual breaks. Constant and intense staring at a person while simultaneously focusing on spoken words is hard on the brain. Multi-person screens also magnify the mental strain and physical fatigue.

In addition, people leading the video calls often fall into the trap of interacting as if everyone were sitting together face-to-face. Lee E. Miller, author of UP: Influence, Power and the U Perspective: The Art of Getting What You Want, says, “The biggest mistake people make is assuming that influencing when you are meeting face to face is the same as influencing when you are interacting virtually. It is not. The rules are different because people respond differently when they are interacting virtually.”

If you are working within a tsunamic wave of virtual interactions, here are five ways to thrive and find balance:

Take written notes on paper

Sometimes old school is the best school. Research conducted by Princeton University researcher Pam Mueller shows that handwriting your notes increases your ability to stay alert and retain more information. Sure, writing by hand is slower than typing. But if you want to diminish brain drain and enhance brain gain, take written notes on paper during your video calls and meetings. This also allows you to continue to see everyone in the video meeting while taking notes.

Pick up the phone

If you are “Zoomed-out,” attempt to reschedule the virtual meeting for a good-old fashioned phone call. Depending on the topic, a traditional phone call may not be as hard on your brain. Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz found that the act of walking leads to increases in creative thinking. You can also “walk and talk” around your house or neighborhood while chatting (remember to practice social distancing).

Ditch the pajamas

If there is no way of getting around it and you cannot limit the number of virtual meetings, this may present an opportune time to “dress for success.” Studies conducted on “enclothed cognition” show that what you wear affects the psychology of how you feel about yourself and most importantly, how well you perform on attention-related tasks. So, ditch the PJs, put on some real clothes and reap extrinsic and intrinsic benefits.

Try not to multi-task

Imagine cooking a meal and reading a book at the same time. While this is a far-fetched example of multi-tasking, I predict that either the dish is going to turn out poorly, you are not going to read many pages of the book — or both. Likewise, while you may be tempted to turn off the video component of a video-calling interface while checking-in on your emails, researcher Anthony Wagner found that “People who frequently use many types of media at once, or heavy media multitaskers, performed significantly worse on simple memory tasks.” Thus, the best course of action during a video call is to close sites and apps that might distract you, and put away your phone. As a result, you will retain more information and energy.

Say “thank you, but no thank you”

We cannot get rid of meetings. They are necessary to share ideas, ask questions, get important information, garner collaboration and solve problems. While it is unlikely that meeting virtually will completely replace the need to someday meet people in person, you do have the power to avoid meeting overload by using a single word if you have the chance – No. To help you say no, ask for the agenda prior to the meeting and ascertain who has been invited. If there are agenda items that are irrelevant to you, respond to the invite with a sincere thank you and add something like this, “Would it be possible to cover the manufacturing discussion as the first agenda item? I can’t stay for the entire meeting, but I’d really like to contribute on that one.”

Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow is clinical assistant professor of business law and management and Indiana University Bicentennial Professor. This post originally appeared on the Kelley School at IUPUI blog. © The Trustees of Indiana University. Used with permission.

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