ZOOM OUT OF THE BRAIN STRAIN

How you can cope with the Weariness of Online Communication

AUTHOR: Joanna Crawley –The Lir At Work
Reading time – 5 minutes

As we continue to transfer our pre-COVID19 lives into indistinguishable online spaces on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet or Skype, we keep discovering that this process is not as smooth and gratifying as we hope it to be. The most obvious ways in which we communicate, collaborate, learn and socialize suddenly seem alien and awkward when we look at them through a virtual window.

As recently as last winter “meetings” were the bread-and-butter of our performance-driven corporate work style. There was no better way than a well-structured meeting to brainstorm solutions, inspire, motivate and tighten the team bonds.

In these last months however this grounding belief of modern business culture has been constantly challenged. Instead of boosting productivity, infinite online meetings prove to be a draining experience, adding to the general discomfort, dissatisfaction and mental exhaustion of our pandemic existence.

Lost in translation

Neither the virtual communication platforms themselves nor our own morale is to blame. Neuropsychologists report that our brains are simply not designed to continuously process information delivered in a way that is hyper-visual, hyper-verbal and yet chronically reduced in essential content.

Northern Illinois University lecturer and an experienced counsellor, Suzanne Degges-White, writing for “Psychology Today” points out that in a video call we receive only 15% of the message that would that would be otherwise available to us in a face-to-face interaction.

Both in business and in art, good storytelling involves much more than just word and narrative structures. During in-person encounters our neuronal mass is only partly dedicated to decoding what’s said. Far more importantly we take in all the non-verbal cues: body language, changes in vocal patterns, emotional shifts, gasps, rhythms and a general ambient of a space we share. With everyday communication being funnelled through a bare two-dimensional grid our cognitive energy is straining to compensate for everything that’s lacking. Knowing that no matter how hard we try, we can never get the full picture, must only lead to exhaustion and disappointment.

Our ability to focus is being tested even more if we have to deal with the limitations of the technology: dodgy internet connection, glitches and delays. A lag as small as a blink of an eye (150 milliseconds) makes it harder to take turns or to politely interject which adds to the awkwardness of videoconferencing. Colleagues cursed with a poor broadband might seem less competent or even less trustworthy, due to our relatively primitive psychology which still prioritises messages that are easier to understand.

Stuck in the lives of others

These issues do not seem so new or surprising if you think of how much information is being left out in a simple phone conversation. And yet, video calls wear us all out in way unlike any other.

As we listen carefully to fill the gaps we are also being bombarded with a myriad of onscreen stimuli. In the last months many of us have taken time to carefully curate our Zoom frames, dressing them with items that best represent our identity, taste and status. Little did we know - talking to seven people you don’t usually expect to find yourself in seven different rooms at once. Contrary to our best intentions, every poster we hang on the kitchen wall, every readable book spine, every glimpse of a sport trophy or a pet’s tail pushes our brains into a state of emergency. We might as well ask them to sing multiple melodies at once or do quadratic equations. Therefore, to spare your team spiralling into a spatial vertigo, you might decide to hide barbells and the vinyl collection and choose a neutral, blank background.

Against the gaze

If you have ever benefited from personal coaching or public speaking courses you might remember that the importance of eye contact is never to be underestimated. Now, with a gallery of team members staring at you nine-to-five from a two-foot distance even this golden truth is something we need to re-learn. To look directly at the camera when your colleagues are speaking is the only way we can respectfully show that we are paying attention. However, engaging in a “constant stare” at a proximity reserved for the most intimate relationships might again bring the opposite effects: for example, triggering anxiety and discomfort. An allowance to take small visual breaks (to look around or just close your eyes) could be become a valuable part of the new online savoir-vivre.

Like actors in a disaster movie

The invasive nature of letting your entire office into your spare bedroom understandably make us more prone to build up complex defence mechanisms. Not only do we deliberately construct our backgrounds. With our self-view constantly on, a lot of extra effort and work goes into curating every aspect of our visible behaviour. In his famous book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) sociologist Erving Goffman gave more insight into this phenomenon. He proposed a concept of impression management, defined as “the wide variety of strategies used by people to control the ideas others have about them”. According to his research we act as if it is absolutely natural for people to behave differently and to display different aspect of their personality depending on the social situation they are in. Stephen Dashniell, adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology at Maryland’s Towson University, brilliantly applied Goffman’s theory to visual madness of the COVID pandemic in his recent article for “The Geek Anthropologist” :

“…the goal in communications during the COVID pandemic is to curate a “flawed perfection” image, one in which a person displays a sense of control and semblance of professionalism, but simultaneously provides elements that speak to measured resilience in the face of struggle”.

Video calls allow unprecedented levels of self-policing and force us to use every ounce of our presentation skills enhance our online performance. Inevitably though, by trying to look engaged but not too professional, active but not too distracting, authentic but not too slacking we create new challenges for our overworked brain. The ubiquitous fear of public speaking has been therefore exacerbated by a dread of failing to meet those complex expectations and to make a dynamic yet credible personal impact on Zoom.

Caring for your virtual self

With six months of sustained crisis behind us, you might have already become a homegrown champion of effective video communication. But as most of the marathon still possibly ahead we all might have to make some conscious decisions to save our energy and maintain our onscreen hygiene.

Even small adjustments might help you feel more comfort in your online workplace:

  • Stop multitasking. With the information overload already so hard to avoid, put away your phone and try not to check emails during video calls.
  • Switch to a speaker mode to better focus on a person delivering the message.
  • Hide self-view. Instead of putting additional level of work in impression management allow yourself to stay backstage while others act
  • Step back. Every inch you add between yourself and the screen will make the experience feel less intrusive.

Continuous learning is our new normal and videoconferencing is yet another high-pressure situation we will eventually master and adapt to. With some time, dedication and patience we will surely succeed taming the Zoom beast, making the online communication not only effective but also satisfying.