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How to combat ‘Zoom fatigue’ in the workplace

How to combat ‘Zoom fatigue’ in the workplace

web-sig_kathleen-driscoll_“Our senior leaders want us to have our teams do a six-hour online training program. I know that it’s necessary to cover this material – and doing it all at one time is the way it’s always been done — but I also know that no one on my team will have the endurance to do more than a couple hours on Zoom at a time. My team is complaining big time. I’m speaking up to our leadership about this. How can I persuade senior management that this program, like a lot of others, needs to be reconfigured?”

Of course your team is complaining. When you think about a virtual training program that goes more than an hour these days, you can almost hear the collective groan: Do I have to sit through a long Zoom?

Indeed, “Zoom fatigue” seems to be a workplace buzzword this year at a time when researchers estimate that the number of people who attended meetings via Zoom skyrocketed from 10 million at the end of 2019 to 300 million in April of this year.

Some of the fatigue with Zoom and other services like it has to do with the loss of “synchrony” or the “interplay of talk, movement, gestures and timing” between the individuals who are communicating, according to researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. That includes our subconscious ability to “mirror” others during conversations. The loss of these very subtle movements and nonverbal cues — that we’re hardly aware of at all during normal face-to-face conversations — present challenges that participants in meetings have to work harder to overcome.

The natural back-and-forth and turn-taking that goes on in an in-person meeting is also different on Zoom and as a result, there can be more awkward silences or two people speaking at the same time.

Then we’ve all experienced the occasional transmission problems and sometimes frozen images that add to the stress of the conversation, interfering with the brain’s instinctual ability to process conversations and read reactions in normal ways. During meetings, participants often feel pressured to stare at the computer screen and appear very engaged. One look out the window or a pause might make us look as though we’re disengaged.

“A lot of Zoom fatigue comes from speaking into a sensory deprivation chamber,” says Aaron Schmookler, co-founder and trainer in a consulting firm called The Yes Works. “It’s very stressful to speak and get zero feedback. And when we’re on mute, no one hears the chuckles at our jokes or the ‘mhm’ to a good idea. No one hears the intake of breath when someone is considering adding a thought to the conversation and hasn’t yet chosen to speak.”

In addition, during this pandemic, many people are juggling more responsibilities at home, including home schooling children and caring for family members. And that’s on top of coping with economic uncertainty and all the issues taking center stage in the country right now.

“Zoom is more tiring than an in-person meeting at a time when I’m more fatigued and more fatigable,” Schmookler says.

So, you’ll want to keep that in mind as you approach the boss about a possible change in the way this training program is done. And be sure to convey the fact that you’re on their side in this endeavor, that you support senior management’s goals.

“You’ll want to make it clear that you are an ally to their purpose,” Schmookler says.

You’ll want to understand why they believe a six-hour online class is the best way, says Josh Rovner, a business consultant and author of a book, “Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company.”

What you really want to find out, he says, is what are they thinking will happen (or not happen) if the training is reconfigured? And what makes them resist doing things in a different way?

“It’s important to listen deeply to their responses and then address those concerns directly,” he says. “If so, then the way to persuade them is to debunk their false assumptions using data and emotional connections.”

Your senior team might believe that having one class is the best way for everyone to learn the content.

“In that case, you must debunk their belief that the learners are truly learning and memorizing everything that’s covered in the existing class,” Rovner says.

There’s a lot of debate over what percentage of information people actually retain in various training methods, including online training.

“No one remembers everything they ‘learned’ in one class — especially if it isn’t used all day every day,” Rovner says.

A key strategy for helping senior management see this differently is connecting them to their own “memories, emotions and experience,” Rovner says.

“Ask them about the last time they attended a six-hour online class, then ask them how they felt about it. Tell them to specifically name the emotions they felt before, during and after the class. Chances are you will get something like, ‘bored, frustrated, overwhelmed, numb, and so on” Rovner says. “Once you get those answers, then ask them how much they learned and how much they remember from that class. That will prove — using their personal experience and powerful emotional connections — that they don’t remember everything and that the experience was not the best for them to learn.”

Then you can take it a step further and ask how they would feel if someone told them they had to attend one. They will probably say they aren’t looking forward to it. And from there, you can connect the conversation back to the learners in this situation.

“Explain that there’s a reason why they’ve never been to an online class that long, which is that it’s not the best way for the learners,” Rovner says. “Ultimately, it’s all about the learners and what methods have the best chance of ensuring they will be able to do what’s necessary to produce results for the company as quickly as possible.”

Best practices in online learning look a lot different from a one-shot six-hour class. To get going, be sure you clearly define your program and expectations, says Robert Nickell, founder and CEO of an all-virtual business process outsourcing company called Rocket Station.

“Preparation is critical because there’s nothing worse than sitting on a Zoom call all day, trying to focus, and having no idea what the outcome will be or what’s expected of you,” he says. “When this happens, people tune out fast, so it’s critical that we avoid it. It’s equally important to maintain a predictable pace and include regular breaks so your audience can maintain their interest and focus.”

Ana Casic, a content writer from TalentLMS, a company that develops online learning software, interviewed nearly a dozen learning and development professionals on strategies for training remote workers and put a few tips together in a blog post (

Some of the insights included:

  • Don’t try to recreate the in-person experience in your online learning environment.
  • Chunk learning into small pieces and creating a “micro-lessons” library.
  • Help people become self-directed learners.
  • ‘Talk’ to your remote learning audience as if you’re together.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, become a storyteller, she says.

“Stories will help your remote learners connect with the information they’re receiving and transform it into knowledge,” Casic says.

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by email at [email protected].