If you've spent too many remote meetings staring unproductively at the glazed-over expressions of your coworkers, a new study has a solution for you: Just keep your camera off next time.
It sounds counterintuitive that turning off your camera leads to more productive meetings, but that's what researchers from the University of Arizona Eller College of Management recently found during a four-week experiment. Taking away video freed people up to stop concentrating on their own faces, and instead focus more on the content of the meetings, according to the study's authors.
On video calls, people often feel like they're being "watched," so they're hyper-focused on their expressions and how other people might perceive them, explains Allison Gabriel, McClelland Professor of Management and Organizations and University Distinguished Scholar at the University of Arizona, and one of the study's authors. This gets tiring, which makes people less likely to engage and express new ideas in meetings, she says.
The solution is not to give up video conferences altogether, Gabriel says, but to give people the autonomy to choose whether they're on-camera or not. The assumption that you have to be on-camera to be engaged is outdated, and employees should feel empowered to talk to their colleagues and managers about camera etiquette and expectations for specific meetings, she says.
Gabriel recommends another useful strategy: Each morning, examine the meetings on your calendar and decide which ones should be on-camera in advance, to help you pace yourself and avoid video burnout. You might need to show your face in a one-on-one with your manager, for example, but you could potentially take a larger company-wide meeting on mute — perhaps even away from your desk entirely.
If you can, resist the urge to schedule all of your on-camera meetings back-to-back to get them over with. That will only heighten fatigue, Gabriel says. Interestingly, she adds, she and her co-authors didn't find any significant relationship between fatigue levels and the total number of meetings or hours spent in meetings per day. It all came down to use of the camera.
Some people are more susceptible to video call fatigue than others, Gabriel says. Women in the workforce face an expectation to "demonstrate competence" due to unfair gendered assumptions that they're distracted by homecare duties while working, the study notes. And newer employees tend to feel extra pressure to perform during meetings because they haven't established rapport or relationships with other people in the organization, Gabriel says.
Some jobs require on-camera meetings by necessity: Educators teaching remotely likely experience more video calls than software engineers, for example. Future research, the study says, could explore how different camera views — like side-view or wide-angle cameras that don't film you head-on — could impact people's performance.
Such future research could be key to fighting burnout. With companies across the country delaying their return-to-office dates, plenty of Americans could be working remotely for the indefinite future.