The phenomenal rise in popularity of apps like Zoom (ZM) and Teams has sparked a debate about the mental toll of the pandemic work day on office workers.
While video conferencing has been a lifeline in the past year, we’re spending more time than ever at our desks — or kitchen tables — and attending longer in meetings.
Although working from home is supposed to improve work-life balance, burnout is becoming a very real problem for many remote workers.
Recently, firms have begun to trial ways to tackle the issue. This month, the banking giant HSBC (HSBA.L) plans Zoom-free Friday afternoons for some UK staff in an effort to tackle stress caused by working from home during the pandemic.
The trial move applies to the firm’s commercial banking unit and is part of the bank’s plans to shake up its working patterns post-pandemic, which involve slashing its office space by 40%.
Other companies, including the global investment bank Citigroup (C), have announced similar plans. Jane Fraser, Citi’s new chief executive, told staff that the company would be introducing “Zoom free Fridays” and limiting internal meetings among employees in an attempt to tackle stress and exhaustion.
But does a flat-out ban on using Zoom on certain days of the week actually address the issue of remote worker burnout?
Watch: What To Ask In A Job Interview
“Since the pandemic, office-based businesses have had to react and adapt to the changing nature of work. This has led to a number of different issues, from a disparity in working conditions between employees to a difficulty in understanding the mood and morale within a business,” says Marcus Thornley, CEO and founder of the employee experience platform Totem.
“Video conferencing has been supercharged by the pandemic and some would say it is the most frustrating part of working from home,” he adds. “Conversations that would often take a few minutes can turn into longer, more formal conversations when over video, with many feeling exhausted from the constant scheduled interactions during their flow of work.”
In a peer-reviewed article published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour in February, Stanford Professor Jeremy Bailenson outlined several reasons video calls can be so much more exhausting than in-person conversations. Not only is the excessive amount of eye contact intense, the cognitive load we experience in video chats is high – because it is harder to interpret non-verbal communication.
With this in mind, Zoom-free days seem like a pretty good solution. “While we don’t implement Zoom-free days at Totem, we understand the positives of this initiative,” Thornley says. “The main benefit is that employees have a dedicated day where they know they won’t be disturbed which can help increase their productivity.
“Conversations that would have previously happened over a video call can happen on instant messaging services, freeing up calendars to do focused work.”
When we know we have a Zoom-free day coming up, it gives us a chance to prioritise tasks that require concentration. With no chance of being interrupted by a meeting, people can engage in “deep work” – a concept coined by Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book of the same title.
It’s the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, allowing you to get your head around complex information and produce better results in a shorter period of time. Modern technology and particularly apps that demand our attention instantly, like Zoom, Teams or Slack (WORK), limit our chances of entering this state of mind at work.
However, there are downsides to an outright ban on Zoom, including the limitations on communication. Thornley says some employees may feel slightly isolated on Zoom-free days, especially if they need support or access to leadership that requires more than just a message.
“Not only this, but having a day free of video conferencing could push more calls into the days when they are allowed,” he says. “This in turn would mean that workloads become unbearable, with the selected Zoom free day leading to even more burnout. To mitigate this, businesses and HR teams should use tools that allow them to understand the morale of workers when implementing new measures, while also being clear on the channels of communication that should be used on non-Zoom days.”
Watch: How To Negotiate A Pay Rise
An alternative approach might be to set firmer boundaries around the use of video conferencing. For example, businesses may ask workers to use Zoom only for specific purposes, and promote the use of instant messaging, company apps or phone calls instead.
“Also, managers should be regularly reviewing and responding to pressures within the business that could be causing team members to feel more stressed or overworked,” says Thornley.
“Offering more working flexibility and time when people can and should be offline can be hugely beneficial to staff morale and wellbeing. There’s no doubt the working world has changed, but it’s up to businesses to listen and adapt to what employees want so that they can be successful in the hybrid working world.”