The first video call of the day. Check microphone, webcam. Ugh, the bookshelf is looking extra messy: insert a virtual background. Next the tedious “I can hear you, can you hear me?” salutations, before the realisation that you are looking sideways at your colleagues. Remember the advice about eye contact: “Look at the camera, not the faces.” Staring into the abyss of the soulless camera lens, you try to maintain your smile and energetic voice.
For many of us, this is a familiar scene. So accustomed to videoconferencing we still, even post-pandemic, “set up a Zoom” as a fancier alternative to a phone call, or as a lightweight alternative to meeting in person.
Much of the scholarly research takes an error-correction approach: find the underlying problems and see how we can fix them. Yet this is not congruent with how work and labour are usually organised: videoconferencing or otherwise, workers do not simply reduce fatigue at all costs. Any human labour that generates value is inherently fatiguing. Rather than looking for the causes of videoconferencing fatigue, we suggest looking for the types of labour constituting videoconferencing fatigue.
Our research unpacks two types of labour relevant to videoconferencing fatigue: performative labour and interpretive labour.
Performative Labour – all work’s a stage
Sociologist Alan Bryman defined performative labour as “the rendering of work by managements and employees alike as akin to a theatrical performance in which the workplace is construed as similar to a stage”.
Videoconferencing is exactly that kind of theatrical performance. Just like a stage performer, we need to speak louder so that the microphone can hear us clearly, we exaggerate our gestures, we sustain the right facial expressions.
But unlike stage performers, the Zoom actor has to deal with hybrid situations—they have to look directly into the camera but also must look at their screen and into the faces of their fragmented video audience.
And not only are we responsible for the performance itself, we are in charge of the set, ensuring the equipment is working correctly, the background is appropriate, and that screen sharing is showing the right window at just the right moment.
Plus we get to watch our entire performance, something stage performers only have to endure during rehearsals. No one wants to be THAT person who turned off self-view and only after the meeting notices the piece of spinach between their teeth.
Interpretive Labour – making sense of it all
Anthropologist David Graeber defined interpretive labour as what we must do to gain not only “a superficial sense of what others are thinking or feeling just by observing their tone of voice, or body language”, but a deeper deciphering of others’ motives and perceptions.
Videoconferencing requires an overwhelming amount of interpretive labour. Understanding people is challenging enough under normal circumstances, but videoconferencing introduces more complexity. Small glitches in the audio and video streams can fluff the verbal communication and the disproportionately large grid of faces can mess up the non-verbal communication.
Plus these sessions are more than videos: parallel text conversations are going on in the chat room, alongside a chaotic mix of supplementary materials, link and screen sharing, informal banter and sometimes completely unrelated conversations. ‘Bonus’ feature emojis can add to the performative pressure (will one appear unsupportive in not sending a round of “👏 👏 👏?) .
To conference or not to conference? That is the question…
All human labour is inherently fatiguing. But we still engage in it because we see valuable and rewarding outcomes from this labour.
So when ‘calling the shots’ about when and how videoconferencing sessions are held, consider three questions:
1. Is this video call going to deliver adequate ‘return on investment’ for everyone’s time, efforts, and fatiguing impacts?
Sometimes the answer is no: in which case your best lines are “Let’s do this via email” or “Can I call you?”.
But sometimes the answer is yes! A timely “Zoom” or “Teams meeting” can quickly clarify matters and facilitate decisions that might otherwise have dragged on through a frenzied thread of emails and phone calls. For example, when collaborating on a report or presentation, screen-sharing allows you to cue specific things on a screen visually, as opposed to giving intricate directions like “look at the second line of the third paragraph on page twelve”.
2. What practices and technologies can support the performative and interpretive labour of video calls?
Videoconferencing tools will undoubtedly multiply in the following years. Already a range of supporting technologies offer to improve your Zoom setup: four-point lighting, wide-angle zoom lenses, teleprompters, and mattifying facial creams. For managers investing in, or developers designing such technologies, it may be more important to increase the value of video calls rather than trying to reduce their fatiguing effects.
3.Will some cohorts be disproportionately impacted by the performative labour required in the video call?
Research shows that those who have historically been less advantaged in the workplace seem to be disproportionately more impacted by certain aspects of videoconferencing fatigue. For example, videoconferencing fatigue seems to be higher among female and Asian workers who are more concerned about their facial appearance than male and white workers. In the modern diverse workplace, it may be wise to, for example, allow employees to leave their cameras off to reduce fatigue.
As we settle into a hybrid work environment, it is crucial to weigh the potential return on investment of each virtual meeting. We need to identify practices that can support performative and interpretive labour, so that valuable and rewarding outcomes can still be achieved while minimising the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that comes with videoconferencing fatigue.
Image: Chris Montgomery