Digital well-being: things you need to know about video meetings

Virginia Rispoli and Youngsil Lee

Months ago, our daily life at work used to be characterised by meeting lots of people, random chats at the coffee machine and spontaneous exchanges of ideas at someone’s desk. The COVID-19 pandemic thrust our life into a virtual space. Since it hit, we’re on video calls more than ever, and many of us find it exhausting. We are losing motivation and we feel tired at the end of the day or week. Why do virtual meetings make us feel more tired and drained? How can we prevent this feeling and instead make the best use of the technologies we have?

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According to the behaviour scientists, Gianpiero Petriglieri and Marissa Shuffler, some factors can negatively influence our wellbeing during video calls, creating so called ‘Zoom fatigue’. First of all, there is an average of 1.2 second delay in the communication process. This makes people perceive responses as unnatural. Secondly, it’s hard to observe non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language through a small screen, which makes paying attention to responses more energy consuming. People communicate even when quiet, but during video calls “our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance or conflicting feeling can be exhausting. You cannot relax during a conversation naturally,” says Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Insead. “During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues. When a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language are eliminated.”

The pandemic has brought about major changes in the way we work. As designers, we create solutions specifically by collaborating with diverse customers, experts and clients. We used to facilitate physical meetings to align goals, ideate concepts, build products and validate them, together in one room. Suddenly, we are forced to do the creative activities virtually. With these constraints we are struggling yet searching for new ways to empathise with the people we work with. To find out more about how video calling specifically influences design meetings, we interviewed 6 of our colleagues from different disciplines on how they’re experiencing virtual meetings so far. In an average week, the interviewees call 15-20 time, with 15 to 20 hours a week spent in video calls.

What are the challenges of video calling?

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As Gianpiero Petriglieri already mentioned, the lack of body language is one of the deal breakers. This is also what our colleagues experience and confirmed. All of the interviewee experience the challenge of not seeing body language and gestures from their audience. Especially in workshops with a large amount of people, it’s difficult to understand if everybody is engaged. You can’t look them in their eyes. Even if you have to watch a presentation together, the challenge is bigger since you can’t see your colleagues anymore.

Besides the lack of body language, video calls result in less spontaneous interactions and collaborations. People are too polite to break into the conversation and give their opinion, in contrary to the offline meetings, where people continuously responding to each reaction. There is no natural flow in the conversations. Although it’s not only because of people’s politeness, as mentioned before there is also a 1,2 second delay in interaction. So, If you want to respond in the middle of a good story, it can ensure a certain ambiguity. People don’t want to cause confusion. The same goes for spontaneously drawing and sketching during a meeting. It feels that a video call has to be more directed and is not directly the place for spontaneous creativity. Of course, you can set-up a sketch and drawing setting in your home office and switch between two cameras, like one of our colleagues did, but that’s not reserved for everyone. And besides, because of the delay and the directed situation, it’s still a challenge to interrupt during a presentation.

Lastly, we miss the smooth transition at the beginning or at the end of a meeting. In between physical meetings at the office, we move between rooms and meet different people. These 5-10 minute moments give us some time to get restarted in a new mode. We change the environment, we sit on a different chair, chitchat with someone next to us, watch some participants or our computers etc. However, virtual meetings make us begin meetings with just one click in the same room while sitting in the same pose and watching the same screen. With a lack of distraction and change, we feel like having one meeting for the entire day by changing some participants and content. Even just changing rooms makes our brain reset and restart. Now instead, we take one call one after the other. We tend to do all meetings without any short break in between.

Positive effects of Video Calling

Of course, there are also a lot of positive effects to experience when talking about video calling. Virtual meetings are smoother than physical meetings. It’s because of the, mostly, directed set up and the earlier mentioned lack of spontaneity. You can be more specific and to the point, you can organize more structured meetings and choose who has to join a specific meeting from one team. If your team exists of 4 colleagues, you don’t have to be in a meeting with all of them. Just split up, write a short recap and include the online presentation.

During a virtual meeting, you also experience that you’re in a multifunctional seamless environment. Now, you’re having the time and technology available to share some resources with your audience. Instead of struggling offline with the technology and sharing options, it’s easy to show your work and collaborate.

Virtual meetings can also create a common environment where everyone can find an equal working condition internally and externally. In fact, we feel that we have more in common with people than we used to do. We are all effected by this situation, in some way to the other. Before, everyone had equal working conditions - namely, the same office. Now virtual meetings give a different perspective into to each other’s lives. Instead of the same office, we now see the insides of people’s homes. We get a glimpse into each others’ lives and that makes us more aware of the full personality of each other, increasing the human connection. This creates a sense of cohesion that brings us closer together.

So, what did we learn: tips and learnings.

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We all have talked about both positive and negative experiences of the virtual way of working. From the previous discussions, we learned that we are changing tools and rules to create a virtual work environment successfully, although sometimes challenging. And yes, we’re still missing the spontaneous social interactions at the coffee machine, so how do we get that feeling back? We shouldn’t change the habits, we just need to merge them into new (digital) habits. Technology can build empathy, it all lies in the way we use technology. It can really help us to maintain our social fabric together. And it comes with finding new ‘informal’ processes to take place again.

So the question to us should be, how can we use technology to have those kind of interactions that we usually have in person? Firstly, think about how we worked at office back then and try to adopt virtual ways to create the similar experience. Hang around together and take back the in-between moments. Get online and do things together, rather than only talk about work. Do you feel alone and demotivated? Call someone and just work together as if you were in the same room. Plan a lunch with a colleague you used to sit with at the office for lunch. Offer someone a coffee break together. We can use technology to recreate the sense of togetherness and the informalities that we used to have at the office. Bring back the casualness and informality to the everyday life of our working days.

Next, try alternative virtual tools that can enhance human interaction. To create more spontaneous meetings, define the purpose of your meeting first. We know that not every meeting needs to be a video call. You can write a message, you can write an email, or you can just call the other person and go for a virtual walk together while you discuss what you need to. If you have to see the other person(s), also the media choice is important. The user-friendly UI of some of the tools we use leads to feel the tool more casual than others. In Whereby, for example, you can give yourself the name you want, and make it a bit more personal. Webex and MS teams are more formal options. So when you plan a meeting, you could ask yourself what media and tool you want to use, as that would have an impact on the meeting itself.

Last but not least, try to create rules to bring humanity during virtual calls. Make clear expectations before the meeting and be cautious about their talks to give some pause for their audience. Make sure you don’t attend the meeting with your phone in your hand. Focus, by doodling or sketching/drawing what people are telling during the meeting. Also, try to have breaks between virtual meetings. Consider to schedule meetings from 25 or 50 minutes (instead of the standard half-hour and hour) to give yourself enough time in between to get up and move around for a bit.

But, the most important thing: take care of each other

Spend some time to actually check into people's wellbeing, because the tiredness that you’re experiencing might be the same feeling the other person is having. Don’t be afraid of sharing how you feel and how you’re experiencing this situation with others. That feeling might let you feel more connected once you share it with someone else. Also, sometimes comforting someone else might let you feel comforted as well. As we mentioned before, we are in this storm together. By sharing our struggles, we might more easily find new solutions.

We can start with a small effort by giving more attention to others, sharing fun things, and being more generous. "Make eye contact with the camera to help us to engage others and be engaged," says Doris. Myles says that:"just as a good comedian, we can be flexible and structured at the same time, and make the meeting fun and engaging for everyone in the virtual room".

How do you communicate with others virtually? With which tools and which rules? How do you utilise the virtual communication tools? How do you manage a balance between corporate factors (structured and efficient) and casual factors (spontaneous and having breaks)? Please share your thoughts and ideas with us!

Videocalls tools mapped a representation of the most used video calling tools mapped based on the feedback we got from the colleagues we have interviewed

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If you have questions or just wat to have a talk with us regarding this topic, send us Virginia Rispoli or Youngsil Lee a message.