So here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, doing our best to survive and acclimatise to our ‘new norm’. For many, this means building a home office, dealing with constant family ‘noise’ and managing the ongoing restrictions and environmental issues.
But what happens when everything works but still doesn’t feel quite right? That’s virtual fatigue, and it’s a growing epidemic among workers.
A DAY IN THE VIRTUAL REALM
We wake up and remotely begin our ‘new way of working’, kick-starting the productivity engine we are paid to run. We log into a platform with a dozen heads staring at us and begin the regular routine of meetings – as we have always done in the past. Then, as we finish up for the day, shut down the computer and turn away from the screen, we feel like we have been run over by a virtual bus. Why is that?
Days blur into one another. Productivity plateaus. Confusion sets in. Why is this happening? It’s the same meetings as normal, only with less running around and travel. You are working from the comfort of your own home, so why are you so tired and sore? Welcome to one of the biggest side effects of working in a virtual environment.
VIRTUAL FATIGUE: AN UNFORTUNATE SIDE EFFECT OF REMOTE WORKING
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were placed into isolation and restricted in how we could communicate and – more importantly – engage with each other. That meant a complete transition from office life to full-time virtual world. No more face-to-face meetings; video calls are the go-to virtual conferencing tool. So why does it feel more exhausting than being a physical presence at work?
The main reason is that virtual mediums require more focus than simply being a ‘physical presence’ in any given conversation. In the virtual world, we need to mentally focus harder on processing non-verbal cues. Rather than seeing physical actions during a conversation, we now need to really spend time thinking and focusing on things like tone, attenuation of voice and body language (made all the more difficult in virtual conferencing with floating heads) to see how they are reacting to the conversation.
Paying attention to these complex cues consumes quite a lot of energy, especially if participants do not all speak the same common language. If you think about it in terms of the human body, a part of us will instinctively pick up on the physical traits that creates the adrenaline fight-or-flight mode. Now that we are working from a safe place, our bodies don’t register these actions as they would in a traditional work environment. This makes us feel awkward as we now need to consider the physical aspect as well as the normal modes of communication. And it is this very awkwardness that is most exhausting – we simply cannot relax and have a natural conversation.
NO MORE SEPARATION: BLURRING THE TRADITIONAL AND VIRTUAL WORLDS
To compound the individual exhaustion, it’s becoming more and more difficult to isolate work conversations from our friends and family. Now we are forced to communicate in an environment where family are present during typical work hours. This is where our self-consciousness starts to compound our awkwardness as now it seems we need to ‘look good’ or ‘perform well’, not to mention we lose the individualism in front of our peers when virtual conferencing.
To a lesser extent, it’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on-screen, or at least not to be conscious of how they behave in front of the camera. The lack of being an individual and heightened awareness to perform on camera is yet another anxious and stressful addition to our exhausted state.
In a traditional workplace, you can watch how others are doing while hiding in the background. Now, modern videoconferencing technology means people are communicating through a monitor that is constantly watching them.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT VIRTUAL FATIGUE?
Once you have experienced your ‘ah-ha’ moment of how virtual fatigue is affecting you, it’s time to put in place strategies to mitigate its impact. First, we need to become aware of the condition and build ‘breathing spaces’ to give our bodies and brains time to adjust. Building in spaces between meetings will help keep us alert as we adjust to this new way of communication.
During these times we also need to keep the body safe and flexible. So stretch, have a drink or, if possible, do a bit of exercise. If you can’t reduce your scheduled appointments, make sure you take micro-breaks (not to do other work) from virtual conferencing by minimising the camera view or, if possible, just looking away from your computer completely for a few seconds. And if you can recommend that meetings are reduced to 30- or 60-minute sessions with quick breaks to get up and move around – even better!
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Another consideration in virtual communicating is understanding natural silence. In a normal conversation it is used to actively listen or induce a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, in virtual conferencing, silence can create awkward moments as that silence is exaggerated and people can become anxious about filling the empty space. Education, healthy communication and acceptance that virtual anxiety is completely natural will help alleviate any further stresses.
These tips might be hard to implement at first but they will help you adapt to this new norm while letting your body recover from virtual fatigue. It’s all about finding ways to make virtual conversations a little easier and more productive.