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You should be able to turn off your camera in virtual meetings

Online meetings are more tiring than face-to-face meetings, and it may be because video chats are more cognitively demanding.

A virtual meeting with Dunder Mifflin employees. One of the employees is wearing their birthday suit.
Turn off your camera or get… turned on?

Earlier this year I posted a summary of “Please turn your cameras on: Remote onboarding of software developers during a pandemic”, which included the following suggestion:

Team members should turn their cameras on during video calls, as this makes it easier for new hires to understand the dynamics of the team, and helps them bond and form connections with their team members.

I think this is good advice. But you may want to turn them off again once everyone has settled in…

Virtual meeting fatigue

During 2020 many organisations were forced to transition from office work to remote work in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Face-to-face meetings were replaced by video calls and lengthy commutes briefly became a thing of the past.

But workdays didn’t become less exhausting. It didn’t take very long before workers noticed that something called “” or “virtual meeting fatigue” was what made their days so exhausting, especially after a day filled with virtual meetings.

It’s not entirely clear what causes virtual meeting fatigue. While the number of meetings increased during the pandemic, the overall time spent in meetings was actually reduced by 11.5%. This is why some scholars suspected that other properties of virtual meetings, like camera usage, might be the cause of this mysterious fatigue.

Why point the finger at the camera?

The reason why scholars think that camera usage may be the culprit has to do with self-representation; the idea that people want to be viewed positively by others and thus behave in ways that make them look good.

Self-representation plays an important role in social exchanges, in the form of . Taking care to present yourself in a positive light has practical career benefits, but also comes at a cost: it’s cognitively demanding.

There are several reasons why virtual meetings could be more demanding than face-to-face ones:

  • Most popular virtual meeting platforms show all participants in a grid layout that gives each participant the feeling that they are constantly being watched by all other participants.

  • Virtual meeting software also tends to show you your own video image, which makes you more aware of the fact that others can see (and possibly silently judge) you.

  • Users constantly receive nonverbal cues that are hard to interpret, e.g. because you can’t really tell what someone is looking at. They generally try to compensate for this by sending extra intentional cues (e.g. nodding exaggeratedly), which also requires more cognitive effort.

Self-representation is costly, but it’s costlier for some than for others:

  • Because women tend to have lower statuses, are judged more harshly and are held against higher grooming standards than men, they feel pressured to invest more effort into self-representation than men;

  • New employees still need to “earn” their reputation and thus have a stronger need to maintain a professional appearance, whereas older employees can kind of do whatever they want because people already know they are qualified.

The authors hypothesise that self-representation leads to fatigue, which might cause employees to perform less effectively. The authors are specifically interested in two specific indicators:

  • the ability to voice ideas and

  • the ability to stay engaged.

Testing the effect of camera usage

The authors of the paper conducted a 4-week study with 103 participants at BroadPath, a US company within the healthcare sector that employs several thousand remote workers throughout the United States. About half of all participants were in managerial roles, although at least some also seem to have more technical roles in IT and software development.

Half of the participants were asked to keep their camera off for the first two weeks and to turn it on for the last two weeks. Conversely, the other half made sure it was on for the first two weeks and kept it off for the last two. All participants also completed a daily survey that asked them how they felt about their workday.

Please turn your cameras off?

The authors found that camera usage is indeed positively related to fatigue. The assumptions that self-representation is more costly for women and new employees also seem to be correct.

This cannot be said for the hours spent in virtual meetings and the number of virtual meetings, which aren’t correlated with fatigue.

With regard to the hypothesised effects of fatigue, the results suggest that camera use has a negative effect on voice and engagement. However, the measured effect is indirect, so this result should be taken with a grain of salt.

Combined, the results suggest that camera usage is particularly fatiguing for women and newer employees and disproportionately hurts their ability to participate in meetings effectively.

Does this mean that cameras should always be turned off in virtual meetings? Not necessarily, but it’s good to at least give people the option to turn off their camera. It would also be more environmentally friendly.

This study also didn’t look at the effect that camera usage has on other participants, which you might want to consider as well.

Summary

  1. Participating in meetings with your camera on can be fatiguing

  2. This fatigue is not due to the time spent in or number of meetings

  3. Fatigue makes it harder to actively participate in meetings

  4. Using a camera for meetings is more tiring for disadvantaged groups like women and new employees

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