October 28, 2021

The virtual meeting conundrum: 'Cameras on' or 'cameras off'?

Daily Briefing

    Writing for Harvard Business Review, experts Allison Gabriel, Daron Robertson, and Kristen Shockley share their new research identifying "the heart of the [virtual meeting] fatigue problem"—as well as which employees were most negatively affected.

    Gabriel is a professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, Robertson serves as the founder and CEO of BroadPath, and Kristen Shockley is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia.

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    Study details

    To better understand the effects of video calls amid the pandemic era, when many employees are working from home, Gabriel and Shockley explain that they partnered with BroadPath, Robertson's business process company that specializes in remote work, to pinpoint what element of virtual meetings was contributing most to widespread issues of "'Zoom fatigue'" and "'virtual meeting fatigue.'"  

    Specifically, Gabriel, Shockley, and Robertson write that in the summer of 2020 they designed a study that collected data from 103 BroadPath employees every day for four weeks. Study participants were randomly assigned to keep their camera on or off for the first two weeks of the study and then switch their camera to the other assignment for the last two weeks.

    At the end of each workday, participants were asked to complete a survey that evaluated their energy levels, engagement, and voice with statements such as, "Right now, I feel fatigued," "In meetings today, I felt engaged," and "In meetings today, when I had something to say, I felt like I had a voice."

    According to the authors, the research attempted to isolate the effects of the camera by tracking the number of virtual meetings each employee attended on a given day as well as each employee's total time spent in meetings.

    Do cameras have a negative impact on employees?

    According to the authors, the study results clearly showed a positive correlation between camera use and daily feelings of fatigue. However, the number of hours employees spent in virtual meetings was not positively correlated with daily fatigue—findings which suggested that the root of daily feelings of fatigue was consistent camera use during virtual meetings more so than the meetings themselves.

    In addition, the study suggested that virtual meeting fatigue had a negative impact on how engaged employees felt, and it reduced their voice in meetings.

    Notably, the authors highlight the fact that camera-on meetings are often seen as a method to improve employee engagement and increase voice in meetings—but their findings suggest that this strategy could have the opposite effect on employees suffering from fatigue due to camera use.

    Further, the authors write that their research indicated certain employee populations—namely, women and employees newer to an organization—suffer from greater fatigue with camera-on meetings, likely because the use of cameras "likely amplifies self-presentation costs, making the effect of camera use on fatigue stronger."

    Specifically, the authors explain that women may feel more fatigued from camera-on meetings because they "generally face greater social pressures in organizations," are often held to higher standards of personal grooming and presentation, and—because women "took on disproportionate levels of childcare during the pandemic"—were more likely than their peers to have "family- or child-related interruptions popping up in the background … further jeopardizing their perceived commitment to work."

    Similarly, according to the authors, newer employees may experience greater virtual meeting fatigue because their "fledgling status" can often increase the pressure to show that they perform well and deserve to be a part of the organization. Moreover, newer employees also face the challenges associated with attempting to establish a professional image while simultaneously trying to understand social norms in the workplace, which can be made even more difficult with camera-on meetings.

    How to mitigate 'virtual meeting fatigue'

    According to the authors, the most "obvious" solution is for employees to turn off the camera on video calls—especially when they feel fatigued. However, they also offered other solutions such as turning off self-view on video platforms, setting up "walking meetings" where calls are taken on the phone so employees can get up and move, and exploring new, innovative technology as it emerges.

    Managers also have a key role to play in establishing camera norms and in getting feedback from their workforce. Asking questions such as, "How often do employees want to be on camera? Should employees be granted greater autonomy in camera use? And, if cameras aren't on, how can ideas about what engagement 'looks like' be changed?"

    The researchers conclude that, "while few would argue that virtual meetings are here to stay, how we use our cameras is still up for debate." (Gabriel et al., Harvard Business Review, 10/26)

    Learn more: Manager's guide to leading remotely through Covid-19

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    Covid-19 has introduced unprecedented challenges for managers who may now be managing a remote team or a team adapting to ever-changing circumstances amidst the pandemic. This toolkit is for leaders who need new tools to keep their team productive, engaged, and aligned.

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