The Productivity Paradox and Zoom Fatigue: Why Technology Won’t Solve Our Problems

“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror”

Jeremy N. Bailenson
Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue

Twelve months into the great remote work experiment, where do we stand?

A recent report from Steelcase which surveyed 32,000 people globally makes the bold claim that 95% of remote workers say they’d rather be back in the office in some capacity. Only 19% say they’re completely satisfied with their current work from home arrangements. More than half want to cap their remote work time to one or two days a week.

I don’t completely buy that, and suspect most would want to cap their office time to one or two days a week. Steelcase is a company that manufactures office furniture and clearly have a vested interest to declare. That said there is a lot of value in the report- particularly the findings that people’s experience varies significantly based on their circumstances and work ‘persona’.

As we emerge from our various lockdowns the model that appears to be gaining traction is that of the hybrid workplace.

Nearly a quarter
of all businesses
say they will continue to
work in the office
as the primary
destination.

However, the
majority of
organisations
will take a hybrid
approach to
work, in which
employees work
from home, the office, and elsewhere.

Clearly then for the majority of us technology will continue to play a defining role in our worklife experience.

The Productivity Paradox

There were clear signals long before the pandemic that technology often just makes it easier for us to be busy fools.

As Edward Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. What it gives us in efficiency, it takes away by giving us more overall work to do. Cal Newport whilst researching his new book illustrates it using the example of email. “In 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average.”

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. As Cal says – it seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

Zoom Fatigue: “Everyone is staring at you, all of the time”

One fairly consistent feeling among people I know across different industries and age groups is a kind of exhaustion at the end of the workday. This seems counter-intuitive given we haven’t had to commute or rush from meeting to meeting, physically at least.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has spent more than two decades studying the ways virtual communication affects individuals. At the beginning of the pandemic he wrote an article suggesting that the fatigue we get from video conferencing could be due to a kind of cognitive overload that occurs when we substitute in-person interactions for virtual platforms.

Now he has published a paper which explains the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” and its four causes: an excessive amount of close-up eye gaze, the effect of video on cognitive load, the increased self-evaluation from staring at video of yourself and the constraints of physical mobility.

The paper is fascinating and I’d recommend any remote/hybrid worker reads it, particularly if you lead teams. It outlines how quickly our behaviour has changed. Indeed behaviour “ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.”

One of the other emerging impacts of videoconferencing is the effect of your own reflection constantly staring back at you from the screen. For decades researchers have investigated the effect of seeing ourselves in a mirror and its role in self image/perception. Bailenson points out most prior mirror-image research has only focused on fleeting glances at ourselves, not the effect at gazing at ourselves for hours on end.

“There is no data on the effects of viewing oneself for many hours per day,” he writes. “Given past work, it is likely that a constant mirror on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect.”

The suggestions in the research for reducing fatigue are common sense , but arguably this is the problem. Many of us know that the behaviours we are adopting are bad for us – we just aren’t listening to what our brains and bodies are telling us.

We know we spend too much time staring at screens.

We know that meetings, especially back to back ones, are corrosive to mind and body.

We know we should move , or stand, for 15 minutes in an hour unless we want a lot of problems in later life.

We know there’s a better way.

Looking Beyond Technology

The issue here is that instead of taking the initiative and setting some rules for the new world of work we wait for the technologists to solve the problem for us. The only response from Silicon Valley will be to make the tools faster, ‘smarter’ and give us more of them.

As Cal Newport points out the solutions will not emerge on their own. We need to start experimenting and finding out what works for our varied teams.

Ironically what we are missing from meetings is the things that happened between meetings: the random human connection, the physical chemistry, the overheard conversations.

Technology has helped us immensely over the past year. The lockdowns have only been possible because of technology. But algorithms only go so far and are rarely designed to encourage the accidental collisions that lead to innovation. That feeling of running into someone, asking what they’re doing, and exchanging ideas. ‘The magic that’s sparked by serendipity’ as Steve Jobs described it.

Do we really think any tool or app is ever going to recreate that?


Lego image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Dog photo by visuals on Unsplash

In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

When only 3% of a workforce is remote, managers can get away with business as usual. When that number climbs to 30%, fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary.

Cal Newport

We are being forced into a massive reset.

For all that’s been written and said about remote work – this is Year Zero. Nobody knows what happens next.

Which way will our companies go?

Already we’ve seen Jack Dorsey of Twitter announcing in an email that those whose jobs didn’t require a physical presence would be allowed to work from home indefinitely. His Head of HR went further – saying that the company would “never probably be the same,” adding, “I do think we won’t go back.”

On the other hand, the engineering firm Dyson told staff who were able to work from home to return to the office this week, then cancelled the plan after a mutiny from dismayed employees.

It’s possible that some of this is genuinely out of organisational hands – less than 10% of people want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown. People are enjoying improved air quality, less congestion and are reconnecting with nature. Four in ten people are feeling a stronger sense of local community.

It would be a brave company that chooses to ignore signals like that.

Although in the current economic environment it’s highly unlikely people are looking to jump ship from a secure job – but with recovery will come a completely different emphasis on employee work/life integration. This will be less a war for talent and more a war for wellbeing.

However , as the opening quote from Cal Newport reveals, it’s not just a different workplace or employee deal we need – it’s a completely different attitude to leadership.

The first post I wrote this year was entitled ‘Ending Our Obsession With Leadership’. It argued that we should all become less fixated on the leader as superhero and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

I suggested the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation and collaboration for the 80% rather than the 20%.

Crises have a way of revealing and recalibrating what leadership really means. As we’ve already seen in our communities the most impressive acts of true leadership have not come from CEOs, or our elected officials, or the media and the rest of the loud and the powerful.

True leadership has been revealed at street level.

It’s that lesson we must learn from – and take back to our organisations.

That won’t be easy because as Cal writes – when the number of remote workers climbs to 30% fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary. This increases exponentially as the remote work force tips to 50 or 70, 80 percent.

He explains that we are currently in the ‘electric dynamo’ stage (referring to the first, unsuccessful, phase of electrification in factories), having adopted remote working but applied it to our existing pattern of work coordination because that is what our organisations are geared up for.

So we are working remotely , but doing the same work, and serving the same hierarchy. This can’t, and won’t, work over the long term.

One of the reasons for this is the weak link in the remote work equation – the manager and the leader.

As Bertrand Duperrin writes in a hugely persuasive piece “management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. The manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams only if he is useful to them. From a distance they no longer see him“.

Bertrand goes on to question whether any existing HR or people team evaluate a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context. I’ve made the same point in the past about collaboration and digital leadership.

He ends by suggesting that the ability to remote work should never be presumed. “It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.”

You can’t blame managers for the way they have been brought up. Management grew out of an era of mass production – of vertical command and control overseen by chiefs and officers.

But those days are over, density and depersonalised service are no longer desirable by consumers, with industries rapidly revamping their value proposition to recognise this. Huge infrastructure and scale – the things which were a massive competitive advantage – are increasingly a liability.

If we are witnessing the collapse of a leadership model based on command and control and vertical hierarchy this is going to place incredible strain on our current generation of leaders who will necessarily have to give away some power.

The thing we used to call leadership is now about breaking down barriers, collaborating at scale and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities for customers.

The long-standing problems that have thwarted remote office work are not about technology or infrastructure. They are about leadership – and our apparent failure to move much beyond a model developed in the industrial revoloution.

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

That’s the uncomfortable truth that many of us must now wrestle with unless we want to return to the old normal rather than create the new.


Featured Image by thedarknut from Pixabay

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