Written By Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer
I hear the phrase “unprecedented times” a lot, nowadays. Throughout the pandemic, everyone in my email inbox seemed to hope I was “staying well during these unprecedented times.” I’m guilty of using the phrase myself! What the thinly veiled message behind the phrase is really saying is, “I recognize that the social state of the nation is completely out of whack, but I hope your life isn’t too unhinged to do *this* for me.”
Remote work is in some ways freeing: no commute, more time at home with loved ones, more flexible schedule. But, this can also force us to be constantly available, and constantly ‘on.’ It simultaneously lessens our sense of community and increases our availability. This means more energy is spent with less social reward. As shown in a study from Northeastern University, remote work can cause “personal and professional isolation, weakening of co-worker relationships and employer/employee relationships, and decrease in organizational commitment” (Bolick 5). The less in-person work we do, the less we identify with our company’s organizational culture, which debilitates team spirit, and generates an increasing loss of personal, intrinsic motivation (Bolick 7). Across 24 countries, 50% of employees surveyed feared their lack of connection would harm their chances of promotion, leading to increased stress and anxiety over job stability (Bolick).
On a micro-level, Stanford University published a study with a few possible theories as to why video-chat meetings specifically can be so depleting: “Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility” (Bailenson). Sitting on a video chat, engaging in long stretches of direct eye gaze and close views of people’s faces is generally behavior reserved for close, intimate relationships. For example, if we were looking at a stranger or an acquaintance’s face as close up as the distance from our face to our computer screen in an elevator, we would immediately look down or away. The unavoidable intensity of this behavior can be subconsciously exhausting.
With cameras on, as is common in certain companies and in online classes, our social energy is also depleted by the constant awareness that we can be seen. Normally, in a conference room where someone is presenting, all gazes are directed towards the speaker. On a video call, every person on the call can see everyone else: each person is aware of the speaker, aware of all of the other participants, and additionally hyper-aware of being visible at every moment.
During in-person conversation, body language is usually monitored subconsciously. But video calls require constant, active, conscious monitoring. Meanwhile we pour social energy into monitoring everyone on the call with fewer nonverbal cues. We’re also forced into viewing our own image alongside everyone else on the call.
“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr 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” (Bailenson). This creates greater levels of negative self-image and more constant awareness of our appearances.
The Northeastern study showed that most of us respond best to remote work when in moderation–a few hours a week dragged productivity, as did working entirely remotely. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle (Bolick). Taking things in moderation isn’t easy, especially if our self-worth is so tightly attached to the work (and quality of the work) we do. If things feel sluggish, the screen time may be partly to blame.
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://tmb.apaopen.org/pub/nonverbal-overload/release/1
Bolick, Christopher. Cultivating Innovative Workplaces in a World Transforming: Cross-Sectional Survey Research Exploring how the 2020 Shift to Remote Work Reshaped Managerial Relationships, Innovative Behaviors, and a Sense of Psychological Safety within a Work Unit, Northeastern University, Ann Arbor, 2020. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2471716944?fromopenview=true&pq-origsite=gscholar