Rethinking Nonprofit Meetings in the Age of Zoom Fatigue

11 min read

Zoom fatigue: At this point in the pandemic, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced it. But if you haven’t, let me assure you it is very, very real.

Nonprofit employee burnout is already an issue in the best of times. People who choose to work in nonprofits tend to be deeply committed to the causes they work on, but dealing with limited resources and, often, lower compensation than they’d find in the for-profit sector. Additionally, nonprofit staff, especially those working in frontline roles, can spend day in and day out helping people deal with personal trauma or intractable social ills. So it’s vitally important that Zoom fatigue not get stacked on top of these other challenges.

Moreover, every time Zoom fatigue weighs down your employees, it directly impacts your ability to help the causes your nonprofit exists to address. The economic and health effects of this pandemic will be felt for years to come, and nonprofits will doubtless be a critical part of getting through them. Keeping your workforce motivated, happy and healthy will be essential.  

Every time Zoom fatigue weighs down your employees, it directly impacts your ability to help the causes your nonprofit exists to address. Click To Tweet

Happily, you don’t have to give up on videoconferencing to combat the exhaustion that so often accompanies it. Some relatively small changes can go a long way toward resetting your team’s relationship to online meetings. 

The Science of Zoom Fatigue

If you or your team are feeling exhausted these days or struggling to get through a “normal” workday, fatigue from too much videoconferencing is a likely culprit. 

Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab recently released the findings of a study on why Zoom, FaceTime and other video conferencing tools contribute to such exhaustion. (Zoom fatigue is the generic term, whatever program or programs you’ve been using.) Researchers identified the following four key factors of video calls that tire us out:

1. Excessive eye contact with others 

Videoconferencing promotes staring at each other’s faces in a way we wouldn’t do for the duration of an in-person conversation. Additionally, the size and placement of faces on our screens can make it feel like our coworkers are invading our personal space.

2. Constant awareness of how we appear 

In addition to staring at others, we’re all constantly aware of being watched in video meetings. This effect can be reduced by turning off the “self-view,” but as long as our cameras are on, we tend to feel scrutinized. 

3. Lack of mobility

In an in-person meeting, you might get up to grab a cup of coffee or scribble on the office whiteboard while still feeling like a full participant in the conversation at hand. But videoconferencing as it’s typically practiced can keep us tethered to our computers, and limit the little natural breaks we may not even have realized we were taking in an office. 

4. Increased cognitive load

For many people, nonverbal cues that feel seamless when meeting in-person can become harder to read and require more focus to interpret over video. It can also feel necessary to exaggerate our own gestures and facial expressions to make our nonverbal responses clear. It’s worth noting that some people even feel these effects after too many in-person meetings. But the number who do with Zoom is significantly greater. 

The resulting exhaustion is manifold. Stanford’s questionnaire, which you can take online, assess five different types of Zoom fatigue: 

1. Emotional fatigue — feeling overwhelmed and drained

2. Motivational fatigue — feeling demotivated and unable to start new activities

3. Visual fatigue — eye strain, pain and dryness resulting from too much screen time

4. Social fatigue — needing alone time to recover from all of the video interactions

5. General fatigue — overall feelings of tiredness 

Altogether, it’s a lot to process and recover from. 

Reshape Your Nonprofit Meetings to Alleviate Zoom Fatigue

Your team is not doomed to fatigue and burnout, even if you keep working remotely after the pandemic has ended. These tools are powerful connectors and your nonprofit can adapt their use so that they work for you. It seems like many of us have fallen into the same patterns in how we structure remote meetings, but there’s no rule saying we can’t change those patterns. 

These five steps can reshape your meetings for the better. How many have you tried?  

Encourage breaks and give people recovery time between meetings

Philip Smith, who runs the Vision and Attention Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, says people really need a break after 40 minutes of cognitively demanding tasks like video calls. While the idea of a workday with no hour-plus meetings and regular breaks may at first sound like a luxury, it also sounds pretty great, right?

While this may not always be possible, I can almost guarantee you can slim down some of your meetings, or at least provide a short bathroom and coffee break every hour. Unless you can look back at every meeting you had for the past week and say that every moment was perfectly focused and valuable, you can probably shave a few minutes off your next meeting. 

If your team has many back-to-back meetings, try thinking about your organization’s schedule like a school schedule, with five or ten minutes built in between each session. These few minutes here and there won’t significantly impact what you can get done in your meetings, but short breaks for your employees to make a cup of tea, use the restroom or even just scroll through photos on their phone can in fact help their morale and focus when the next call starts. 

To avoid people just scheduling meetings farther apart and breaking up everyone’s day, try an organization-wide change. For a week or two, announce that all previously hour-long meetings will end at the 50-minute mark, and all previously half hour meetings will end at the 25-minute mark. Check in with everyone after they’ve had a chance to experience the change and use their feedback to decide whether to make the change permanent. Obviously, this can’t apply to things like counseling appointments with your nonprofit’s clients, but even making changes to internal meetings alone could make a big difference for your team. 

Find ways to break up or shorten your longer meetings 

We love our quarterly committee meetings and half-day planning sessions in nonprofits, and these truly are times when vital work is done and critical communication happens. But, as you may have experienced by now, translating a 6-hour workshop from the “before times” into the world of virtual work is simply not going to be an option. For one thing, events like this would usually include a lunch break or natural socializing time in person, and trying to replicate those aspects of meetings online isn’t often all that satisfying.

However, you can make the virtual format work for your nonprofit and limit Zoom fatigue in the process. In February, Prosper conducted media training with United Way of Metro Chicago. In the past, such a training would have occurred in one three to four-hour block. This time, we scheduled two sessions two weeks apart. The first was an hour and a half and the second was an hour. We also assigned some of the individual exercises we would have made time for in an in-person training as homework for between the meetings, and used breakout rooms in the second session to facilitate discussion. 

Attempting to run one half-day media training on Zoom would have been a recipe for exhaustion, and I’ve no doubt that participation would have sharply declined a few hours in. Instead, having the break between sessions offered participants a chance to reflect on what they had learned and bring thoughtful questions to the second part of the program. So get creative when you think about how to combat Zoom fatigue — you may just find some adjustments that will work better for your nonprofit in the long term as well. 

Normalize turning off the camera, fidgeting and other videoconferencing coping strategies

Back in the office, one of my coworkers and I would often have walking brainstorm sessions, where we’d take a walk through downtown Chicago while mulling over a client challenge. When I moved across the country and started working remotely (pre-pandemic!), we continued to meet this way, but by phone, each walking in our own downtown. While it would have been nice to be together in person, I never felt like anything was lost in our conversations. 

If your nonprofit is like most organizations, some portion of your meetings were already held by good old-fashioned telephone before we all started working from home. It makes sense to want some meetings by video now that we never see each other in person, but we don’t need to see each other constantly, do we? 

Don’t assume that just because no one on your team has requested to turn off their camera that they wouldn’t like to. If you are in leadership, try explicitly giving permission to your team to turn off their camera, at least at certain times. If you value video chat and hate talking to little gray boxes on Zoom, request that your team uploads still photos of themselves so you can see who you are talking to without needing them to constantly be “on” for the camera. 

When cameras are on, normalize fidgeting, doodling and looking away from the camera at times. Doodling and fidgeting can actually improve concentration for many people. As long as people are engaging in the meeting, these should not be seen as signs of distraction. Of course, these may not be the best choice for meetings with clients or funders — but that’s no reason to keep them out of internal meetings. 

Break up meetings with different types of engagement 

When giving presentations, look for ways to break up your slide deck and get people more involved. Collaboration and connection are what you are looking for in videoconferencing, right? If you think beyond video itself there are all sorts of creative ways that modern technology can promote both. 

Tools like Mentimeter can add interactive elements like quizzes, polls and real-time group feedback. Or, try the Zoom Whiteboard feature or collaborative documents in Google Drive to work together during a meeting. 

If you are working with a large group, you can also try having one person run a presentation and a second manage the chat. Instead of having people muting and unmuting themselves to cut in with questions and comments, you can encourage engagement in the chat, with the chat moderator voicing key ideas so the presenter can respond. This gives your audience an opportunity to engage that’s not focused on being on camera, and can be friendlier for people who are sharing space with kids in Zoom school or a partner on another call. 

Ask your team what they need — and let them respond anonymously 

Remember that list of five types of exhaustion? We don’t all experience Zoom fatigue in the same way or to the same degree. The factors are manifold, from personality to home situation to job function. 

Moreover, while remote work can greatly increase accessibility in some ways, video calls also come with accessibility challenges that can magnify Zoom fatigue. So even if you are managing hours of video calls everyday and feeling all right, your colleagues may not be. I’ve included more resources on Zoom fatigue, accessibility and disability for reference at the end of the post, so you can read what neurodivergent and disabled writers have to say about their own experiences. 1 

As you consider implementing the recommendations in this post, send around a brief anonymous survey to your team checking in on accessibility issues any of them may face on video chat, so you can incorporate accommodations into the changes you make to your video chat protocol. Don’t assume you know what your team needs: not all disabilities are visible. Do not make anyone feel they need to share why a specific modification could work for them — simply ask what would help them do their best work, and be willing to try it. 

Ultimately, a big part of combating Zoom fatigue comes down to being willing to experiment. Open the conversation with your team, and try some of these ideas or others that they recommend. Make clear that you are open to feedback and willing to make shifts depending on whether your team likes or dislikes these options. You may just learn a few things that will improve your in-person meetings, too. Remember, your team will do their best work when they feel comfortable, and a high-functioning nonprofit team is key to advancing your mission. 

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Further reading on Zoom fatigue and disabilities:

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