It’s 4 p.m. and you’ve got a welcome call with your newest team member. Ideally, you’d feel full of life, ready to welcome her with enthusiasm and get her excited about the weeks to come.
Problem is, this is your 6th video call of the day and you’re overrun with Zoom fatigue.
You’ve been turned “on” (not in a good way) for the last 7 hours and are severely lacking in enthusiasm, let alone excitement.
The worst thing is, the majority of those meetings were unnecessary, everything covered in them could’ve been communicated asynchronously.
Simply put, asynchronous communication involves communicating remotely without expecting an immediate response. This can be done via iMessage, pre-recorded video/audio, making suggestions to an existing project (think: Google Docs/Sheets, Github, Jira).
The challenge is knowing, when and how to use synchronous vs. asynchronous communication methods. Fortunately, this post is here to teach you just that so you can avoid Zoom fatigue and stop being real-time, all the time. Feel free to skip to a specific section of the post using the links below.
- What is Zoom fatigue?
- Avoid Zoom fatigue by making sure communication is always intentional
- Avoid Zoom fatigue: Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
- Advantages and disadvantages of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
- Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication tools at Process Street
- Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: Wrapping up
What is Zoom fatigue?
Zoom fatigue, or “virtual fatigue” refers to the exhaustion you feel after any kind of video call or conference. This exhaustion can show up in different ways, but, generally speaking, Zoom fatigue manifests in similar ways to traditional exhaustion or burnout:
- Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating;
- Difficulty maintaining relationships and being present with loved ones;
- Frustration and irritability with co-workers;
- Physical symptoms, like muscle tension, pain, fatigue, and insomnia.
Exhaustion as a result of a busy workday isn’t abnormal and stress at work is not unique to remote work. Any work environment can be the cause of physical and mental exhaustion. The key thing is that in the remote working environment, this exhaustion can be easily mitigated.
By communicating intentionally.
Distance is about more than just physical location
To communicate effectively (and intentionally) you need to consider how distance will influence your team. Distance does not simply entail being in different physical locations, but rather, in distributed organizations it manifests in three ways:
“Physical: Physical separation is when one or more members of the team can’t be in the same physical space as others. It is a spectrum: individuals may be on different floors or on different continents. It also varies depending on whether a group of members is remote from the majority, as can happen in hybrid organizations. The relative size of the remote group also matters.
Temporal: Temporal separation is when one or more members of the team are not in the same time zone as others. It also is a spectrum; you can have varying degrees of time zone overlap for standard 9am-5pm business hours among different team members. A team in California has six hours of overlap with someone in Bogotá, Colombia, but none with anyone in India. Holidays or eating schedules around the world can also increase temporal distance in teams.
Cultural: Cultures can vary within the same organization, city, country, or continent. It can be as subtle as the meaning of a word in two regions, or as marked as two separate languages, styles of working, or even perception of concepts like professionalism or punctuality.” – Katie Womersly & Juan Pablo Buriticá, Remote Work
Avoid Zoom fatigue by making sure communication is always intentional
Much like exhaustion, the need to communicate well is not unique to remote work. In any work environment communication practices can make or break a team. The issue is, in the remote work scenario it’s harder to tell when your communication practices are coming up short.
When working in an office, it’s a lot easier to tell how employees are doing, even if they don’t directly communicate this with you. If Dorris is spending more time in the lavatory than at her desk, and when she is at her desk she has tears in her eyes, you, as a leader, would check in on her. However, in the remote environment, these types of things are a lot harder to pick up on. Particularly, if real-time communication and one-on-one communication is limited.
Because of this, distributed teams must decide on, and document how they will communicate so that employees feel the same amount of support as they would in an office. For an effective communication system do the following:
- Build an architecture to streamline communication 💬
Set up guidelines to help your team communicate issues and requests on a sliding scale of urgency. These guidelines will help to lower the risk of burnout and help individual employees to prioritize tasks.
- Manage time zone differences within the team 🕒
Map out which teammates are where, when they are available, and what the main periods of overlap are. Once you have that covered, include the data in your communication architecture. This data can then be used as a key resource for the entire team by showing when to expect more synchronous vs. asynchronous forms of communication. This resource will also help to inform the scheduling of meetings and standups during times of overlap.
- Aim for asynchronous communication 🤝
An important part of your communication architecture is setting expectations regarding synchronous and asynchronous communication. Pre-determine what needs to be discussed in real-time, and what doesn’t need an immediate response. Every team should aim to develop communication policies to identify when, where, and how to engage in synchronous vs. asynchronous communication, including guidelines for best practices, and use of related tools.
Avoid Zoom fatigue: Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
Let’s start by clarifying exactly what I mean by synchronous vs. asynchronous communication.
What is synchronous communication?
Synchronous communication happens when messages can only be exchanged in real-time. It requires that the transmitter and receiver are present at the same time and/or space. In the remote environment, examples of synchronous communication include phone calls or video meetings, like Zoom or Skype calls.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication happens when information can be exchanged independently of time. It doesn’t require the recipient’s immediate attention, allowing them to respond to the message at their convenience. Examples of asynchronous communication are emails, online forums, and collaborative documents.
Finding the right balance between synchronous vs. asynchronous communication is essential to the fluid functioning of a remote team. Being real-time-all-the-time and spending the majority of your time communicating synchronously will likely result in burnout or Zoom fatigue. However, solely communicating asynchronously can lead to disassociation from the team and therefore reduced productivity and job satisfaction.
But, don’t just take my word for it.
Psychological consequences that contribute to Zoom fatigue
According to Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab the four stand-out physiological consequences of prolonged video chats:
1. Eye contact is everything, and that’s not always a good thing 👀
The amount of eye contact required during video chats, as well as the size of faces on our monitors, is unnatural. In the office, environment meetings involve looking at a variety of different resources, such as the speaker, your notepad, and around the room. Whereas, whilst in a video chat your eyes are focused on one point for the entire duration of the meeting.
Another disturbing point Baiolenson makes involves the proximity of the face on the screen. If someone’s face were that close to ours in real life our brains would register it as an intense situation relating to mating or conflict. Basically, we’re constantly flirting with our computer screens, and it’s exhausting.
“What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state…” – Bailenson
Solution: Bailenson recommends avoiding the full-screen mode on Zoom and reducing the size of the Zoom window to minimize face sizes. He also suggests the use of an external keyboard to allow an increase in the personal space between yourself and the screen.
2. The on-camera experience causes cognitive overload 📹
In face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication flows naturally; to the point where we are rarely consciously noticing what we ourselves are doing with our own gestures and other nonverbal cues. When communicating synchronously via video we are consciously aware of our own movements, along with those of the person on the screen these things combined result in cognitive overload.
In simple terms, it takes more brainpower to communicate over Zoom than it does face-to-face. An example of this is present in 2018 Croes et al.’s research which compared face-to-face interaction to video conferences and found that people speak 15% louder when interacting over video.
“On Zoom, nonverbal behavior remains complex, but users need to work harder to send and receive signals.” – Bailenson
Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio-only” break. This does not simply involve turning off your camera to take a break but also turning your body away from the screen so that you’re not constantly reading the gestures of those on the screen.
3. Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility ⛓
In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. But with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural.
“There are a number of studies showing that locomotion and other movements cause better performance in meetings. For example, people who are walking, even when it is indoors, come up with more creative ideas than people who are sitting” – Bailenson
Solution: Bailenson recommends people create as much distance and flexibility within the room in which they hold video calls. Consider where the camera is positioned and opting to use an external mouse and keyboard. He also suggests turning your video off periodically during meetings to give yourself a brief nonverbal rest.
4. Looking at yourself while interacting with someone else is draining 💤
We’ve all been there, answered a Zoom video call only to realize a couple of minutes in that there’s something in our teeth or our hairs out of whack. On this occasion, having a mirrored view of yourself during the call is a good thing. However, failures like this happen rarely; the rest the mirrored version of ourselves only serves is to distract us at the best of times, and at the worst of times, cause us to build up complexes and become overly critical about our appearance. I mean, if you stare at anything for long enough you’re going to find something wrong with it. Right?
In Bailenson’s opinion, staring at oneself during a chat is unnatural and in some cases can have negative effects, particularly for women.
“The authors argue that the tendency to self-focus might prime women to experience depression. (…) Given past work, it is likely that a constant “mirror” on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect. But how this changes longitudinally is an important question moving forward.” – Bailenson
Solution: Bailenson encourages video conferencing platforms to change the beaming effect of the video for both self and others. He also suggests opting to “hide self-view”, within Zoom this can be done by right-clicking your photo.
Advantages and disadvantages of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
In a previous Process Street blog post, our CEO, Vinay Patankar, said that his number one tip for teams communicating remotely both asynchronously and synchronously is to communicate in ways that are information-rich. Video can be one of the best ways for conveying a large amount of information in a short space of time.
To listen to what Vinay has to say about asynchronous communication check out the video below:
Before looking at the various synchronous vs. asynchronous communication channels and tools, it’s important that we understand how to determine when they should be used.
Being in close proximity to one another limits how fast a team can grow or whether or not it can be distributed. This reliance on physical proximity can also make things hard for the individuals that can not be present and cause them to feel displaced or excluded.
“When you’ve built a team that relies on physical presence to operate, you’re unintentionally building communication patterns that will eventually break with growth, or when life happens.” – Katie Womersly & Juan Pablo Buriticá, Remote Work
Surprisingly being in the same place doesn’t actually make communication easier, it actually can emphasize suboptimal habits, such as:
- Reliance on serendipitous encounters 🍀
Being physically present can cause team members to rely on serendipitous encounters with co-workers when searching for a solution or trying to make a decision. This can become troublesome if the serendipitous encounter doesn’t happen.
- Reliance on synchronous communication 🗣️
Information being passed from one employee to another via verbal communication is unreliable. It’s like Chinese whispers but in the workplace, the message is subject to modification and interpretation. It also relies entirely on good working relationships, and levels of communication amongst the information holders and the rest of the team.
- Physical presence is mistaken for productivity 👨💼
When an employee’s value is judged by their presence at a desk/in the office, rather than the quality and efficiency in meeting deliverables.
Although asynchronous communication has heaps of advantages for remote teams such as increasing focus time, providing centralized and written documentation, and reducing distractions it shouldn’t be used alone. To be successful your remote team should intentionally choose when, how, and why they communicate asynchronously, while also knowing when it’s important and necessary to communicate in real-time.
4 key pain points to consider when working within a remote team
- Presence – How quickly do you think you should respond to this feedback?
- Friction – How much effort would it take to figure out a response and where that response should be sent?
- Intent vs. Impact – Can you quickly identify if the statement has good or bad intentions?
- Tone – Which tone does each take? Could each be interpreted differently by different people?
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication tools at Process Street
Every team will likely need different tools depending on their daily tasks and internal business processes. The diagram above highlights the tools that we use at Process Street; in this section I’ll cover when, why, and how we use each of them.
Synchronous communication tools for remote teams
- Zoom: The Process Street team relies on Zoom for all of our synchronous meetings. Including bi-weekly marketing all hands, monthly team syncs, and one-on-ones.
- Donut (from Slack): We meet with team members for a social catch-up via Donut. Donut will select people from our Intro channel and will send a DM encouraging them to meet up for lunch, donuts, or a virtual coffee over video chat.
- Annual company-wide retreat: Every year the whole team gets together for a company-wide retreat. Unfortunately the year I joined coincided with the onslaught of the pandemic so the retreat trip to Portugal got canceled. 💔
- Direct message: If an emergency occurs our team leaders send a text or call one another if need be.
Asynchronous communication tools for remote teams
- Process Street: We use Process Street to document workflows and business processes, and to manage procedures via templates. With Process Street you can launch an unlimited amount of superpowered checklists from templates, meaning all members of your virtual team can follow your business’ processes perfectly. Every. Single. Time.
- Slack: More than just a direct messaging tool, Slack allows for streamlined communication within our team. Although some teams use Slack asynchronously, we do this because when used asynchronously it can be the cause of constant interruption which lowers productivity. At Process Street we even have our very own Slack app which you can add to your Slack channel. This collaboration means that we can now view all of our Process Street daily tasks from within the Slack app making things heaps easier. To learn how you can add Process Street to your Slack, check out this post.
- Google Docs/ Google Sheets: In the content team we do the majority of our peer reviews in Google Docs by using the “suggesting” function. We also share our Google Sheets with the team to get feedback from the team on things like keyword research.
- Jira: Our EPD team uses Jira to manage their daily tasks and GitHub, to manage our code and our peer review.
- Github: Our EPD team uses Github to manage code and perform their peer reviews.
- Gmail: For external communication and in certain scenarios, we rely on email.
When deciding on which tools to use within your team consider the following advice:
“Compatibility of communication and collaboration tools includes a common agreement and definition on how the tools should be used; for example, commitment from all team members to answer emails in due time, or being logged in to IM whenever available for communication.
A common agreement on communication practices is also important, for example, when deciding who should be present in which meetings, where to store important decisions, and whether to inform the whole team about decisions made privately, for example, in IM discussions.” – Tuomas Niinimäki, et al., Journal of Software
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: Wrapping up
It’s likely that in the future the most successful remote companies, particularly startups, will be the ones that have streamlined communication methods by harnessing both synchronous and asynchronous tools. It will be the teams that don’t require their employees to always be turned on, the ones who prioritize asynchronous communication to allow for more undisturbed focus time.
Hopefully, after reading this post you know how to avoid Zoom fatigue, stop being real-time, all the time.
Let us know how you use synchronous and asynchronous tools in your workplace in the comments below! Is there a tool you think we’d benefit from using?