Canadian Underwriter

Is it time to ease up on the video calls?

March 4, 2021   by Adam Malik

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New research shows the influx of video calls brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is tiring people out.

“Zoom” has become a verb to describe videoconference meetings, said professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Brokers unable to meet with clients in person have turned to “zooming” with them instead.

On the plus side, Zoom has allowed brokers to meet with many more clients during the day on a video screen than they could in person prior to the pandemic.

“Brokers are seeing massive efficiency gains from simply replacing in-person meetings with video conferencing software,” Nick Novinger, Quebec regional manager at Canadian Insurance Brokers, wrote in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Canadian Underwriter. “A broker that used to see four or five clients a day in-person can now see 10 or more online in the same amount of time, thanks to reduced travel times.”

The increased efficiency is leading individual brokers in top-tier commercial insurance brokerages to shatter sales records, according to senior brokerage executives who spoke as panellists during Canadian Underwriter’s February 2021 webinar, Brokerage Executive Outlook.

But all this screen time may be having a negative effect for those taking part in the video call, according to the report, Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, authored by Bailenson.

His research highlights four consequences of prolonged videoconferencing, which contribute to what he termed “Zoom fatigue.”

They are:

  • Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze
  • Cognitive load
  • Increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself
  • Constraints on physical mobility

When it comes to the eyes, not only is eye contact close, it’s intense. The size of the screen, for example, is unnatural. Furthermore, in a normal meeting, people don’t always stare at the speaker. They can look away and keep their eyes moving.

“It is quite rare for one listener to stare at another listener, and even rarer for this non-speaker-directed gaze to last for the duration of a meeting,” Bailenson wrote. But in a video conference, both the speaker and listener are staring straight at the screen most, if not all, of the time.

When it came to cognitive load, people are used to picking up nonverbal cues from other people; not to mention giving them on their own. Because these cues can’t be picked up, people are working harder to send those signals.

“Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behaviour and to send cues to others that are intentionally generated,” Bailenson wrote. “Examples include centring oneself in the camera’s field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to signal agreement, or looking directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) to try and make direct eye contact when speaking. This constant monitoring of behaviour adds up.”

Because people are constantly seeing themselves on video, they’re evaluating themselves. That’s fatiguing, Bailenson wrote.

“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an eight-hour workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did, and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but in essence this is what happens on Zoom calls,” he wrote.

Finally, since people are videoconferencing, there’s a lack of mobility. In a video call, people are forced to stay in the same spot.

“During face-to-face meetings, people move,” Bailenson wrote. “They pace, stand up, and stretch, doodle on a notepad, get up to use a chalkboard, even walk over to the water cooler to refill their glass.”

Some possible solutions to the challenges include:

  • Don’t use full-screen mode. Shrink windows. Use an external keyboard to create more space between yourself and the screen if using a laptop.
  • Turn off your camera and go into audio-only mode for a period of time to give yourself a chance to stretch and move around during longer calls. This helps with mobility and lowering the cognitive load.
  • Hide self-view. You don’t need to see yourself. Change the setting so that you can’t see your video but it’s still beaming to everyone else.


Feature image by Dutton

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1 Comment » for Is it time to ease up on the video calls?
  1. Clark says:

    Fantastic article thank you. Hiding self-view is a great tip but it doesn’t seem to be possible in the PC version of Microsoft Teams. Cognitive load is real and you’re right this whole way of meeting is quite unnatural. Managers should never compel their employees to appear on video. On the other hand, employees should try to occasionally show themselves on screen.

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