Working Remotely? The Psychological Impact of Video Calls

Written by Kirsty Parker - 28 Jun 2021

As an account director, I'm used to being in meetings, talking with people, be it with clients or colleagues - it is part of everyday working life. The pandemic has changed many things for many people, but the switch to remote working has meant dealing with a lot more screen time. Read my thoughts on the psychological impact of video calls and how we can deal with them.

Many of the skills we learn for creating connections online may also help us create greater harmony and togetherness when we can gather together in person again. So, in some ways, this is an opportunity for us all to grow our relational and engagement abilities.

Kirsty Parker, Account Director

We no longer call, we Zoom

You're in a Zoom call, Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams meeting or a Skype chat. Your colleagues present and correct on your screen in front of you, their backdrops showcasing the most acceptable corners of their homes. It's a familiar sight for many of us right now - video calls have become the norm for people working from home, and it's likely to remain a part of our working day for some time.

Video calls are efficient, aid flexible working, facilitate collaboration, reduce decision making time, all whilst saving on travel expenses. Above all, they can help establish more personal and trusting relationships with our colleagues and clients. Thanks to the increase in visual interaction, we can get to know each other as a person, not just a voice at the end of a phone. Having to do a meeting whilst a pet attempts to clamber over a keyboard or stopping a presentation mid-flow to answer a child's question is now not uncommon. These aspects give us access to a side of our colleagues and clients that we don't usually witness, and seeing those worlds coexist can be good for us individually and for our professional relationships. 

But why can they feel like such hard work sometimes? Video calls are an excellent way for us to connect, communicate, and collaborate across distances. Still, it's also an easy way for us to continuously stare at a computer all day as we multiply the effects of meeting or screen fatigue and social isolation. Nowadays, most of us spend a lot more time on video calls than we ever have before, and a lot is happening, psychologically, from the moment we click the button to enter an online hangout. 

Why video calls can feel weird and overwhelming 

Researchers have identified the consequences of prolonged video chats that can contribute to the feeling commonly known as "video call fatigue", highlighting how its use can be exhausting and suggesting interface changes to make them more manageable, including; 

#1 - Increased close-up eye contact is more intense 

The excessive amount of eye contact we engage in on video calls, as well as the size of faces on screens, can feel much more intense than a face-to-face meeting and unusually intimate for a business conference. In a face-to-face meeting, people are diverting their attention to the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere, but in a video call, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time.  

#2 Constantly seeing yourself on a call can feel tiring

Most video platforms show a self-view during the meeting, but that's unnatural. Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day, which can be stressful. Research studies have shown that there are negative emotional consequences of seeing yourself continually - when you see a reflection more regularly, you're more self-critical.  

3. Video chats dramatically reduce our mobility. 

Video calls don't just require brain engagement - staying seated in the same position, gaze trained to the screen also strains your body and eyes. In-person and audio phone conversations allow us to walk around and move. There's growing research now that says when people are moving, they're performing better cognitively. Video calls limit movement in ways that are not natural.  

4. The cognitive load is much greater in video calls

In face-to-face interactions, nonverbal communication is natural. Each of us makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously - now we have only audio and visual cues and have to work harder to send and receive signals. Essentially, we have lost many of the social prompts we rely on - which might be why it feels intuitively challenging or somehow less satisfying as a way of connecting with another human. 

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What can we do for ourselves? 

If we're not careful, video calls can cause us to feel like we're on autopilot and struggling to feel the connection and belonging we need to sustain ourselves and work effectively together. But if we are intentional, we can avoid some of the pitfalls and work with the technology to benefit our mental health and team collaboration.   

We don't need to wait for others to legislate new behaviours, nor do we have to wait until the cognitive load has driven us to a breakdown. Instead, we can mitigate the effects of video call fatigue by the following acts of self-care: 

  

#1 Adjust your video call setup to be less intensive 

Take the video call out of the full-screen option and reduce the window size. We can ensure we're using an external keyboard and sit back from the screen to help create personal space and allow for more movement. We can check our faces are correctly framed in the video and then use the 'hide self-view' option or cover it with a post-it to instantly reduce cognitive load, or briefly turn off our camera to stand up and stretch. 

#2 Say no to random extra meetings or over-scheduling 

Given that we know meetings create high levels of cognitive load and can often fall back-to-back, let's say no to a few meetings. Instead, where possible, try and carve out some breathing time between sessions and give ourselves time to reflect and defragment our brains. 

#3 Suggest shorter meetings or a phone call instead 

Not all meetings need to be video calls. If catch-ups have set 'types' and times, then everyone knows what to expect and how long it will take - standup? 15 mins, weekly meeting? 1 hour. When you only need to speak with one or two people, dialling the technology back a notch with a good, old-fashioned phone call can help too - it's a great equaliser, and we don't have to deal with the cognitive load of trying to read pixelated faces. 

#5 Check on colleagues and recognise the emotions. 

If there's potential for misunderstanding or the topic under discussion is emotive, we must ask for explicit emotional feedback — either during the session or after it. Again, providing an alternative channel for those who need it can support the time spent on video calls while mitigating risks to work or mental health. 

In summary

There are already signs that "video call fatigue" is present, and it's interesting to see what we can do to start looking after ourselves and our colleagues. Of course, none of these suggestions is a silver bullet, and nothing will replace being in the room together, but they can help us be more connected, healthy, and effective amidst the moment we find ourselves.  

Many of the skills we learn for creating connections online may also help us create greater harmony and togetherness when we can gather together in person again. So, in some ways, this is an opportunity for us all to grow our relational and engagement abilities. 

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