We’ll always look back on 2020 and 2021 and remember the Zoom calls, but perhaps not know why it was always Zoom and not some other platform. We’ll look back and remember our “Zoom fatigue,” but perhaps not know what we could have done to combat it. At this point, it’s still 2021, and the future of Zoom and video conferencing in general has yet to be seen. After over a year and a half of Zoom calls, we can, however, speculate about what went well and what can still be done better after the pandemic subsides.
One question stands out: given that there are a great many video conferencing platforms out there (like Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Webex, and GoToMeeting, to name a few), what is it about Zoom that made it so ubiquitous that the pandemic came to be defined by video calls on their platform? There are several factors. For one thing (and a very important thing at that), it’s extraordinarily easy to join a Zoom meeting—you simply send a URL to everyone, and all they do is click on it, using any of their devices. Unlike most other platforms, there’s nothing else participants need to set up—they don’t need to create an account or download anything separately. The link handles everything, making Zoom the most convenient way to make sure everyone can join your meeting. Once you’re in the meeting, the functionality is easy to use and the user interface is very simple.
In addition, Zoom has the advantage of having a single platform that’s aimed at both business and personal use. It’s made to cover all types of video communication, no matter what the meeting is about. Zoom gets most of its revenue from businesses that use its platform, but the fact that people are exposed to Zoom in their workplace makes them more likely to use Zoom in their personal lives as well since they’re used to it. The general nature of Zoom’s product also means that it’s been designed to handle large numbers of participants—more than many other platforms—while being reliable.
That being said, it’s not for nothing that the term “Zoom fatigue” has entered our vocabulary. Obviously, nothing compares with real, face-to-face interactions, but why is it so exhausting to meet with people by video call? A paper by Jeremy Bailenson of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, summarized here, seeks to explain why. In normal meetings, you’ll usually be looking only at the speaker, and everyone else will be too. The vast majority of the time, you don’t feel the pressure of having all eyes on you. But on Zoom, you experience everyone looking at you from the screen throughout the entire meeting. In addition, faces in Zoom meetings often appear too big and too close compared to real life. These factors all contribute to a psychologically aroused state, and keeping up such stress for an extended period of time makes you feel worn out.
There are other factors as well. You’re constantly seeing video of yourself during a Zoom call, which is stressful; in fact, it’s been shown that seeing a reflection of yourself makes you more self-critical. (As Bailenson suggests, just imagine someone following you around with a mirror all day showing how you look.) And communication over video calls is just plain hard. Nonverbal cues play a huge role in facilitating communication, and they don’t work well over Zoom. We have to put in extra work both to understand what other people mean and to make our own intentions clear. A 2014 study found that, on phone or video calls, delays of even 1.2 seconds in people’s responses can cause others to perceive them as less friendly or attentive. Silence in conversation is natural in real life, but when technology gets thrown in, it becomes a problem since our brains aren’t made to work that way.
All in all, it seems that humans aren’t psychologically equipped to handle online meetings well. Bailenson has some recommendations to make video conferencing more human-friendly. For example, shrinking the Zoom window and using an external keyboard to distance yourself from the screen can help reduce the stress of seeing faces that are uncomfortably large and near to our own. Likewise, changing the default of showing the user a video of themselves can mitigate stress on that front as well . And of course, taking breaks from constantly presenting yourself is important—Bailenson suggests occasionally turning off your camera so that you can stop worrying about correctly presenting yourself nonverbally, as well as turning away from the screen, in order to reduce the amount of nonverbal information you’re taking in. Experts have also noted that it may help if there’s an understanding among participants in the meeting that turning on the camera is optional.
These are factors that Zoom can consider in designing their platform and that users and meeting organizers can take into account when running video calls. But once the pandemic is behind us, what are we to expect from Zoom? For its part, the company is anticipating that employees will prefer a hybrid work environment over working fully from the office or fully from home. A survey conducted with SurveyMonkey in April found that 65% of workers who worked remotely in the past year preferred a hybrid model of work. Things are no different on the employer side. In fact, in June of 2020, 82% of employers were found to have intended to permit some remote work after the pandemic, and nearly half intended to allow full-time remote work. Zoom has also been developing other products (such as Zoom for Home, Zoom Phone, Zoom Rooms, Zoom Apps, and OnZoom) to accompany its main video-conferencing platform, which it hopes it can put to use as people—and companies in particular—continue using Zoom calls. Nevertheless, to some, all these new products are just a signal that Zoom’s main product has reached its peak usefulness, meaning that the company feels they can’t generate much more revenue off their core video-conferencing platform.
Looking further into the future, Zoom and other companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Cisco have been considering innovative ways of conducting meetings to make the user experience even better. They’re looking into ways to enhance employees’ wellbeing, ensure every participant gets a chance to speak, and make it natural for participants who are physically present in the office to communicate naturally over video with those who are remote. There’s even been work on implementing augmented reality and holographic meetings. Indeed, Zoom’s chief operating officer Aparna Bawa quoted CEO Eric Yuan as saying, “I want you to be able to reach through Zoom and shake someone’s hand or give each other a hug.”
While the pandemic has made us realize the importance of real human contact, it has also shown us the power of video conferencing, and, in particular, the power of platforms that focus on ease of use and basic functionality rather than highly specific features. Platforms like Zoom will stick around after the pandemic as people continue to turn to them for long-distance communication—hopefully using them in ways that promote welfare and reduce stress. And of course, we can look forward to the exciting new possibilities for video conferencing in the coming years.