(Reuters) – In a move to combat fatigue triggered by remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, Citigroup Inc has declared “Zoom-Free Fridays” and encouraged employees to limit calls outside work hours.
While Wall Street is known for its tough work culture, the remote working during the pandemic has been particularly gruelling for most employees, taking enormous toll on their health and mental wellbeing.
“I know from your feedback and my own experience, the blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being,” Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser said in a memo seen by Reuters on Tuesday. “It’s simply not sustainable.”
Any internal meetings on Fridays would happen as audio-only calls, according to the memo. The CEO also encouraged employees to take their vacations, while the company announced a firm-wide holiday on May 28.
Citigroup also said that post-pandemic, a majority of the roles at the bank would be designated as “Hybrid”, allowing employees to work from the office at least three days a week and from home for up to two days a week.
Last week, an internal survey at Goldman Sachs circulated online showed junior bankers were working an average of 95 hours a week.
On Monday, Goldman Sachs CEO announced a number of measures the bank would take to address these concerns, including shifting bankers from other divisions to the busiest teams in the investment bank and hiring more junior bankers.
Video chat has dominated our work and social lives for more than a year. How can we better adjust to this mandatory, draining technology that’s going nowhere?
I’ve learned a lot of things about myself in this year of social distancing and pandemic lockdowns. One of those things is crystal clear: I never want to use Zoom again.
It’s not because it’s not a great app. In fact, without it, our pandemic experiences would likely have been far, far lonelier. And Zoom has almost single handedly made remote work, which many companies viewed with skepticism before Covid-19, actually possible.
No, the reason I want out is because of Zoom fatigue. Simply put, Zoom drains your energy, because it flattens all of your social interactions – personal or professional – into the same, unnatural grid of disembodied faces, where being stared at and inadvertently interrupting people is the name of the game. And although video conferencing has been around for years – almost a century, technically – Zoom felt like it erupted into our lives overnight, and within a specific, unprecedented landscape of pandemic fear and anxiety. As a result, it’s not exactly something I’ve come to develop a positive association with.
Yet expert consensus points to remote work sticking around after the Covid-19 era – which means Zoom won’t be going anywhere, either. So, if widespread Zoom use is going to continue, how will we keep Zoom fatigue at bay? If it’s going to be an ongoing, important part of our professional lives, how can we learn to love it – and can we?
‘Work made us do it’
A year into the pandemic, research is starting to confirm what we feel instinctively – that video conferencing saps our mental resources. A new study from Stanford University in California, published last month in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour and the first peer-reviewed article to look at Zoom fatigue, pinpoints the more granular reasons we experience the phenomenon. The four chief factors include constant, close-up, interrogation-like eye contact from the other participants that doesn’t go away, even if you’re not the one speaking; constantly looking at your own face (which has led to self-esteem problems and plastic surgery for some); having to sit still for an extended period; and not being able to easily and accurately pick up on cues like body language.
The fact that we’ve been sitting in front of a webcam all day isn’t the only reason for Zoom fatigue, however. Many of us were abruptly forced to adopt it at the start of the pandemic; we didn’t have any choice. With Zoom, “our work made us do it, our schools made us do it, seeing our friends made us do it”, says Jeff Hancock, founding director of Stanford University’s Social Media Lab and one of the researchers who worked on the new study.
Yet for most people’s day-to-day lives, Zoom is “what we call a ‘heavy’ technology”, he says, which is why video conferencing – an emotionally taxing and technologically demanding medium – sat on the periphery for decades, until Covid-19 propelled it to the fore. “You have to look good, you have to pay attention, you have to pay attention to the area behind you, and that’s heavy,” he says.
Like hand sanitiser and face masks, Zoom has become an indelible symbol of the Covid-19 era
Make no mistake, Zoom has been an integral lifeline. But the novelty is wearing seriously thin, in a year which has been defined by “Zoom with your grandmother, Zoom with your friends, Zoom with your colleagues”, says Anne-Laure Fayard, associate professor in the department of technology, culture and society at New York University. The app has effectively flattened all of our interactions into the same tool, which makes it feel repetitive, inescapable and mandatory. “The pandemic created this sense that we only had one option, and that option was forced on everyone.”
That means that, like hand sanitiser and face masks, Zoom has become an indelible symbol of the Covid-19 era. “For many of us, Zoom fatigue is really work fatigue, pandemic fatigue, lockdown fatigue and social isolation fatigue,” says Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California who specialises in communications and media.
Once we exit this crisis period, however, it makes sense that our relationship with Zoom will evolve, experts say. After all, though the process is usually slower than Zoom take-up in the pandemic, we’re used to adopting new technologies and finding the best ways to use them.
“Our norms will change. When we first had elevators, everyone would stare at each other like, ‘oh God’. And now in an elevator, we face forward,” says Hancock. And when ride-sharing services like Uber first appeared: “’Do I get in the front? Do I talk?’ And now it’s, yeah, you sit in the back; you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.” We figured out the more awkward and messier bits as we went, and eventually adapted to the technologies.
In the case of Zoom, the hypothesis is we’ll use it more sparingly, and in situations that truly call for it. A great place to start is to really think on why we hold video conferencing in high regard in the first place.
“The assumption is face-to-face is always great, and so then we always need to have technology mimicking face-to-face,” says Fayard. “I think that’s why some people want video, and not just an email.”
But not everything needs to be face-to-face. “It’s about variety – I call it a ‘mix-and-match’ approach,” says Fayard. Juggle Zoom, email, in-person meetings, phone calls and other communication methods, she says, depending on “organisational needs, different types of meetings and different personalities of [employees]”.
The team at Stanford suggest practical tips that can help, like making “audio only” meetings the default for your organisation, which can help eliminate the main Zoom fatigue triggers outlined in the study. They also suggest using an external webcam and keyboard to allow greater flexibility in your seating arrangement; meaning you won’t be staring mugshot-style at the screen for the entire call.
Plus, Zoom and its competitors will roll out new features that minimise the ways the apps drain our energy. For example, you might have noticed a new feature on Zoom that blurs your background – possibly eliminating the stress of having colleagues peek into your messy kitchen or judge your personal items. Some providers are working on tools that will record meetingsso people can watch them asynchronously. (Hancock also says Zoom has reached out to the Stanford team to open a dialogue on how to improve.)
More choice, more appreciation?
Of course, the passage of time will also play a role in the ebbing of Zoom fatigue. Social distancing measures will lift, travel will begin again and we’ll be not only be able to head back into the office, but also visit friends and family in-person – meaning we can choose what we use Zoom for, and what it’s suited for, instead of it being the default.
Judith Donath, fellow at Harvard University’s internet and society centre, says she’s been taking online photography classes during the pandemic, a situation that’s perfect for Zoom. You’re not staring unblinkingly at each other in a sea of talking heads, because there’s no need to. Rather, you might all be looking at a fellow student’s photo on the screen and critiquing it with audio only.
“I’d much rather do those [classes] online than in person,” says Dolath. “You’re not having an intimate conversation with someone – the teacher is talking to the class in general, and people are all addressing the general class” when they speak – so why do you need to see their face?
Now, in what we fervently hope are the closing months of the pandemic, it may be time to realise that just because we can communicate via video call doesn’t mean we necessarily should. We want the facilities and conveniences Zoom affords us – but going forward we’re going to be able to choose how we use it and when.
For me, I’ve found I like the app best when I’m Zooming while I’m doing something else, just as Dolath says: playing video games with friends, for example. And even after the pandemic, my scattered family will still be far-flung – so we might be able to gather virtually to make Christmas cookies or a holiday dinner, with Zoom on in the background, as Hancock did with his own family last year. It makes for a more natural and comfortable video call – as opposed to one full of people staring at each other on a webcam in the chairs, trying desperately to replicate being in person, only to clumsily talk over one another or tell people they’re on mute.
“I feel a little bit like Zoom is the hammer for everything right now,” he says. “Let’s not use a hammer. Not everything is a nail.”
Zoom Video Communications Inc reported better-than-expected quarterly revenue on Monday, helped by increased users on its video-conferencing platform for remote work and online learning against the backdrop of broader stay-at-home orders.
Zoom users have surged in the past year, fueled by its free platform that people turned to for socializing, virtual meetings and e-classes, with some users going for the paid version to avail more features.
Video conferencing services such as Zoom stand to benefit from the adoption of hybrid work models by many businesses, part work-from-office and part work-from home, that demand the usage of its platform to stay connected.
Zoom reported quarterly revenue of $882.5 million, compared with estimates of $811.8 million, according to IBES Refinitiv data.
Net income attributable to common stockholders rose to $260.4 million, or 87 cents per share, in the fourth quarter ended Jan. 31, from $15.3 million, or 5 cents per share, a year earlier.
Christmas parties are being organised virtually by businesses whose offices are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A vaccine will arrive too late for office parties, so companies have invested in digital events and activities.
Food deliveries, workshops and live entertainment have been planned virtually for staff.
The aim is to boost morale, when some home-workers are feeling isolated.
Hire Space has pivoted from organising events at large venues, to hosting virtual parties with a difference.
Clients begin by selecting an entrance experience – for example a comedy bouncer who checks dress code on the way in – and then choose from more than thirty immersive rooms, from burlesque to dance floors.
Guests can move between rooms using a clickable party map, showing the different performances and where the guests are.
Virtual toilets and smoking areas are even included.
“It has been a huge success for us after a really difficult year,” Will Swannell, co-founder at Hire Space, says, adding that they’re now hiring again after previous job losses.
For those tired of online quizzes, there are escape rooms and other immersive experiences.
Digital Murder Mystery Co. plans virtual murder mystery parties, hosted by an actor. Guests are sent character details in advance.
“It helps to keep team-building alive and kicking,” Christina Rhodes, co-founder, says.
“It is crucial that teams still feel that they belong, even though they can’t interact outside of work.”
Food and drink
The culture of a working lunch continues – with many restaurants, chefs and caterers moving to takeaways and deliveries.
One Fine Dine delivers freshly cooked, haute cuisine meals simultaneously to guests as part of its Christmas party offering, meaning no awkward pauses on the video call.
“We had one company of 70 who all got on Zoom together,” Daniel Hulme, founder of One Fine Dine, says.
“Food is a universal language – it connects people. You can share the experience virtually.”
South Catering usually supplies corporate clients with food for meetings, training, events and away-days.
It now provides boxes of meals and snacks for staff working from home and has launched a ‘Dining Home For Christmas’ three-course meal box for its clients.
“The last few months has been about adjusting to a radical change, with companies realising that some of their employees are struggling with working from home,” Justin Gilchrist, chief executive of South Catering, explains.
“Many offices have perks that include heavily subsidised meals and in-office snacks and drinks.
“We try to make it easy to reward and motivate staff working at home who are missing their pre-pandemic office activities.”
But other offices will be working for their supper, through live cooking events.
Jane Smart runs Soho 15, which delivers leadership training.
Normally, she would plan a two-day event with speakers, sessions and down-time.
This year, she’s booked a team cookery class through Cookalong.tv.
The menu is arranged, ingredients and wine pairings delivered, and live coaching given by professional chefs on video call.
“Everyone loves the fact that it will be a shared experience, that we will be learning some new skills from our expert chef and having great fun in the process,” she says.
“We will be in our own homes, with partners joining in, and it will be a unique experience.”
Other companies have arranged workshops, including cocktail-mixing, wreath-making and beauty treatments.
“We have done quite a few corporate events so far for advertising agencies, wellness brands and fashion labels,” Katie White, facialist and founder of Re:lax London, says.
“It’s a great way for firms to boost morale and do something enjoyable as a team and it shows that the employers are interested in their employees’ wellbeing.”
The sessions cover everything from mindful breathing to facial massage.
Jo Woodward, founder of Wreath Making Delivered, adds that her business has been “completely overwhelmed with demand” and has already reached capacity on most dates.
It sends wreath kits to staff, who then follow a tutorial on video call.
“We also have some international events, which means that colleagues from all over Europe can get together, virtually, to enjoy their Christmas parties for the first time,” she adds.
Although lockdown has shut live entertainment venues, private gigs are being held online for businesses.
NextUp hosts virtual comedy events from comedians’ homes, some featuring Eddie Izzard and Richard Herring.
Performances have varied from traditional stand-up to interactive quizzes.
“When a company moves online virtually – the social side has to as well, not just the work,” Dan Berg co-founder of NextUp says.
“Comedy is needed more than ever, it’s been a challenging time.”
And live music is also catering to virtual office parties.
Encore hires hundreds of musicians to deliver virtual live music packages.
One of its most popular offerings is a Zoom Bomb experience, in which musicians appear via a video call to surprise employees with a song.
“Am now totally obsessed,” Emma Sinclair, co-founder of Enterprise Alumni tweeted, after organising a surprise rap performance in a virtual meeting.
“Companies are keen to keep their workforces engaged and happy, especially during the winter months when we are locked down,” James McAulay, chief executive of Encore, adds.
“Crucially, January is a time when many employees start to look for a new role, and so it’s vital that companies keep their teams happy and cohesive in the run-up to Christmas.”