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The price paid for staying in touch

Earlier this year, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University published a paper examining the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on video chat platforms. In the same way ‘Googling’ is now used to describe any kind of web search, the term ‘Zooming’ has become ubiquitous as a generic verb to replace videoconferencing. The number of virtual meetings attended has skyrocketed and the VHIL team has identified four consequences of prolonged use of this medium, which contribute to the feeling many of us have encountered; namely being Zoomed out.

 The report does not set about criticising the platforms – it recognises the extremely important role they have played through the pandemic – instead, it identifies what contributes to our exhaustion and how to leverage current features to minimise fatigue.  

 Managing your position on the ZEF (Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue) scale

The anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population, and is a stressful experience for many. In a virtual meeting, we are looking at faces staring back at us, in just the same way as delivering a presentation. Moreover, as they are very close, we engage in more eye contact and the size of the faces looking back at us is often unnatural. When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation, which is either going to lead to mating or to conflict (a kiss or a fight?) In a physical meeting, people do not stare at all the faces in the room all the time – they look down, look away or look at each other ‘one on one’.

To manage this ‘too much eye contact’ and ‘people staring’, the researchers suggest we keep the screen at least an arm's length away from us and consider using an external keyboard. This increases the space between us and ‘them’ and feels more natural. They also suggest we avoid using the full-screen option and reduce the window to shrink face size.

The second reason cited as a cause of Zoom fatigue can be summed up as ‘too much mirror time’. Studies have shown that when we see our reflections, we become more critical of ourselves. This is taxing and stressful and has negative emotional consequences on each of us. To remedy this, we should simply select the ‘hide self-view’ option and we will all likely finish our calls less drained.

Thirdly, the cognitive load is much higher in a video chat and we have to work hard to understand what people are really saying, or meaning. The usual nonverbal communication signals – gestures, nods, head movements, facial expressions – that guide us through a meeting are harder to spot. Additionally, when contributing to the call we often find ourselves exaggerating our response – leaning forward, exaggerated smiles or nods or talking much louder. All this is very tiring. VHIL appreciate there are no easy solutions, but recommend we take regular ‘audio only’ breaks, for a few minutes, to ensure we are not smothered with gestures that are ‘perceptually realistic, but socially meaningless’.

The last fatigue-buster recommendation relates to maintaining our mobility. Sat in front of a screen all day means we fall short of our daily steps and we perform less well from a cognitive perspective. To resolve this, the team suggest using an external camera farther away to enable us to pace and doodle in a virtual meeting, just as we might in a real one.

Zooming in and zooming out

We have been reflecting on Zoom fatigue recently for two reasons. The first being the number of fund managers contacting us advising they are planning to re-start visits to Jersey, sometime soon. Face-to-face meetings are something we – like many others – are looking forward to and it will be good to re-connect in person once again. The opportunity for us to travel in the opposite direction is on the horizon too; we have found there is no substitute for meeting managers in their own backyard.

The second relates to a recent analysis we have undertaken to measure the level of fund manager contact we have been able to maintain through the pandemic. Our standard routines ensure regular interaction, however, this was super-charged through the early part of the pandemic, as market turbulence necessitated increased understanding around positioning and thinking. From mid-March to the end of May 2020 we participated in 69 video conference calls, which involved over 100 presenters, be they fund managers, economists, analysts or strategists. Add these meetings to staying in touch with clients, our team members and numerous other third parties and that’s a lot of people staring back at us through screens, with faces unnaturally close, during what was an intense period for markets. We are pleased to say no mating or conflict ensued! Indeed, without question, the time committed to our fund managers paid dividend in terms of helping us navigate portfolios through that challenging period and beyond. We should also thank them for the level of communication and access we have been able to take advantage of.

The use of videoconferencing technologies has, of course, been an ever-present through the last 12 months and they have been invaluable, at both a professional and personal level, for many. Yes, we will all have encountered ZEF at some stage, but we should all remember the laughter they have created, whether that be at our own expense or the unfortunate mishaps endured by others. Episodes like ‘You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver’ or ‘I’m here live, it’s not a cat’ went viral, as did the numerous stories around ‘live’ bathroom breaks, inappropriate ‘me time’ and attendees in various stages of undress.    

If you would like to contribute to the VHIL study around ZEF, please visit https://vhil.stanford.edu/zef/ to complete their survey.  

Please do contact us with any questions. 

Julia Warrander and Russell Waite

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