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Why workplace video calls are so exhausting

John Davidson

Jul 13, 2020

AFR

Are video meetings wearing you down? Do you find your concentration waning at the 30-minute mark of a work-from-home meeting, and never really recovering?

You’re not alone.

Using electroencephalogram (EEG) skull caps, scientists at Microsoft have been measuring the brainwaves of people conducting meetings over video-conferencing apps, and have found the human brain responds very differently to video meetings than it does to face-to-face meetings.

Not only have they found that (surprise surprise) the human brain was never designed for video meetings, they’ve also found something more unexpected: remote workers who have only ever interacted via video meetings, who later meet in person, find the in-person meeting almost as mentally taxing as a video meetings, and much more taxing than it would be if they had never met over video in the first place.

He might be smiling, but meeting over video isn’t easy on the brain, says Dr Michael Bohan, director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group John Davidson

Part of the reason video meetings are so tiring, according to Dr Michael Bohan, director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group which conducted the research, is that meeting participants are all divided up into individual boxes on the computer screen.

This triggers your brain to treat each participant as a distinct source of information that needs its own processing as you look for visual cues, making your brain work much harder than if you were all meeting together in a room where there’s only the one, big source of information to be processed, Dr Bohan told The Australian Financial Review in a video interview.

It was this insight that led Microsoft to create the new “Together Mode” meeting format for its own teams video meeting app, where all participants are put into one virtual space.

It’s very much like internet dating, only between co-workers and without the upside.

“What’s happening is that people (meeting over the internet), when they have the video turned on, basically are concentrating really hard for a sustained period of time. And that lasts for about 30 minutes on average, and then your brain starts to get tired.

“And that’s where you see that drop off (in brain activity), and it never really regains that high level,” he said.

But in Microsoft’s experiments, when people first met over video and then later met in person, EEG scans showed they were working almost as hard in the real-life meeting as they were in the virtual one.

It’s very much like internet dating, only between co-workers and without the upside.

“When you finally get together (with a co-worker) in a room, your brain has to actively filter out all the things that you had learned previously – your expectations, the assumptions that you made – and you’re effectively having to relearn how to work together.

“It’s like if you’ve only met somebody through the internet, and you get to know that person really well, and then you go to meet them in person, and it’s stressful and different,” he said.

It’s too soon to say what that means for companies as COVID-19 lockdowns lift, and their workers start drifting back into the office, Dr Bohan admitted.

It could be that remote workers, meeting in the office from time to time, will always find the occasional face-to-face meeting more stressful, compared to workers who only ever meet in the office.

But Dr Bohan said he suspected that, after a while, once-remote workers would settle back into the routine of face-to-face meetings.

Microsoft hasn’t been able to do the follow-up experiments to figure out the long-term effect of all these video meetings, and how it impacts on face-to-face meetings.

Like just about everywhere else, Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering laboratories have been shut down due to COVID-19, and the in-person half of the experiment is on hold.

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