If you want to work remote, turn on your camera in Zoom

If you want to work remote, turn on your camera in Zoom

  • Reading time:6 mins read

Make remote work work

Unfortunately not a real screenshot, I wish I did Zoom calls from the top of the mountain

Do you want to continue remote work? 

The answer is probably yes. All surveys shows people want to continue remote work.

Do you dread Zoom calls? 

Do you complain that you have too many virtual meetings and never have the time to get anything done? Do you find them tiring and aggravating? Do you feel Zoom fatigue? This applies to any videoconferencing software: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google, whatever.

The answer is probably also yes.

Yet remote work is unlikely without Zoom calls. If we want to continue working remote after the crisis is over, we need to make Zoom calls less awful.


The solution to Zoom fatigue: everyone turn on the camera at all times.

This feels counterintuitive. After all, we turn off the camera to feel better during Zoom calls. 

Stopping the camera reduces stress and makes you feel relaxed in the moment. There are academic papers and magazines that claim too much video contact causes Zoom fatigue. 

They confuse temporary effects with root causes. In fact, it is the other way around.


In the long term, lack of video amplifies Zoom fatigue

To understand why, we need to go to the root cause of Zoom fatigue. It comes from the insufficient nonverbal information conveyed through videoconferencing.

We evolved for physical face to face social interaction. We crave it. And we crave to belong to a tribe, group, community. Put these two together and you get our incessant need for validation in every social interaction. 

This need is ubiquitous and continuous. It manifest with your spouse, but also with your colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances and total strangers. One famous researcher in rejection was famously inspired by feeling ostracized when two strangers stopped throwing him a frisbee.

Zoom calls are the core of social interaction in remote work. They are similar to face to face interaction. But they are not the same. The difference between ‘similar’ and ‘the same’ is enough to harm us.

Face to face interaction is incredibly complex. Significant regions of our brain are dedicated to decode facial expressions. Our unconscious uses more cognitive power to decode body language and tone, than our conscious does to understand the words spoken. The consensus is that 70%-93% of communication is non-verbal.

Zoom calls cannot convey this non-verbal communication well. You see the participants faces on video, and hear their tone of voice. But it’s far from the richness of physical interaction. 

This lack of information creates anxiety. 

We evolved to continuously give and receive signals non-verbally. When you say something, you look at the other person’s expression. Are they nodding or frowning? Are they paying attention or thinking about something else? Scientists estimate 55% of communication is body language, and another 38% tone of voice. We need this information to know if we are validated or not from the others.

In Zoom calls with video you get some of this feedback. You can see people’s expressions. You hear their tone of voice.

If you take away video, too little information remains and your Paleo Robot feels anxious

You have some tone of voice, but it’s incomplete. You are missing out on most of communication. This makes your monkey brain anxious. You don’t know if you are being rejected or validated. This uncertainty remains almost regardless of what the other participants say. We evolved to seek out validation from non-verbal communication.

This uncertainty is a type of stress which we dismiss as irrelevant. But it is profound. 

Our need for social belonging is almost as strong as our need for food and shelter. 

Humans in the Stone Age died if they were exiled. Our unconscious evolved to prioritize social validation above everything else.

If you don’t have video, then you lack this social validation. 

You might have the best presentation in the world. It will feel like a failure.

Because of the lack of feedback, your unconscious goes into panic mode: ‘Are these people ignoring me? They must hate what I am presenting. Should I change how I am talking? Should I say something different? Do I have a bugger on my nose? I am going to get so rejected!’


One camera off leads to everyone turning the camera off

This social anxiety fuels a self-perpetuating cycle. The anxiety from Zoom calls makes people self-conscious and they try to protect themselves by shutting off their cameras. By doing this, they amplify the anxiety for the others.


No video makes you disengaged which leads to multitasking

Besides the anxiety, you become more likely to tune out a conversation without video. The social pressure of being seen keeps us engaged and attentive. This is how we evolved. 

When you turn the camera off, your unconscious interprets it as a signal to stop paying attention. You struggle to keep your mind on the call. You drift to doing other things while the meeting takes place. You check email, browse social media, try to tick off other work tasks. 

This multitasking is awful for your brain because it cannot actually multitask. Rather it makes a series of switches from one task to another really quickly. This gives the impression of multitasking, but it is not. Context switching is one of the most tiring activities for your mind. When you turn camera off, you put yourself in the position to context switch, which then makes you tired and stressed.


Solution: insist that everyone keep the camera on all the time

I recently held a course on storytelling on Zoom. I made it mandatory to keep cameras on. One of the things the participants appreciated after the course was that it was very interactive, and we had a lot of good discussions. This would not have happened if they were allowed to turn off cameras.

I know camera on feels uncomfortable. I am as guilty as anyone. When I don’t feel like becoming engaged, or are not that interested in the respective Zoom call, I keep the camera off. 

But if we want to keep working remote, we will need to keep having Zoom calls. 

Instead of exhausting ourselves with many bad Zoom calls, let’s eliminate the unnecessary calls and be present 100% in the rest by keeping the camera on.


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