In today’s digital age, the word “virtual meetings” frequently appears in our daily calendars. Yet, instead of feeling recharged after these virtual interactions, many of us experience an inexplicable sense of drowsiness.
New research from Aalto University reveals that the culprit behind this fatigue isn’t mental overload but rather mental underload and boredom.
Tackling Fatigue in Virtual Meetings: It’s Not Overload, It’s Underload!
Assistant Professor Niina Nurmi, who spearheaded the study, initially hypothesized that stress levels would surge during remote interactions. Surprisingly, the findings revealed quite the opposite. Nurmi noted, “especially those who were not engaged in their work quickly became drowsy during remote meetings.”
To uncover the heart of the matter, the research team meticulously tracked heart rate variability across virtual and in-person meetings. This analysis spanned nearly 400 meetings and involved 44 knowledge workers. Joining hands with the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, experts at Aalto deployed heart rate monitors to delve deep into the realms of stress and recovery.
Nurmi and her team didn’t just stop at numbers. By integrating physiological methods with ethnographic research, they followed each subject for two workdays. This holistic approach ensured that they captured every event with precise timestamps, ultimately pinpointing the root causes of physiological responses.
The Role of Engagement in Virtual Fatigue
The insights gained from the research were indeed eye-opening. Nurmi stated, “The format of a meeting had little effect on people who were highly engaged and enthusiastic about their work.” These individuals managed to maintain their energy and active participation, even in a virtual setup. Contrastingly, those with lower work engagement and lesser enthusiasm found virtual meetings quite draining.
One major revelation from the study was the profound impact of cognitive cues and sensory input. Engaging in face-to-face interactions naturally keeps our focus sharp. However, virtual meetings often lack these vital stimuli. Nurmi elucidated, “Especially when cameras are off, the participant is left under-stimulated and may start to compensate by multitasking.”
The Pitfalls of Multitasking in Virtual Meetings
While a moderate level of stimulation benefits the brain, multitasking during virtual meetings emerges as a significant concern. The reason? Our brains aren’t wired to handle multiple cognitively demanding tasks at once. Activities like walking, which are automatic, can indeed enhance concentration during virtual meetings. However, attempting to juggle multiple tasks that require cognitive attention can be detrimental.
Nurmi elaborated on this conundrum, emphasizing that if you’re splitting your focus between two demanding tasks, you might miss out on essential discussions in the meeting. Additionally, the relentless need to toggle between tasks exhausts the brain.
Rethinking Virtual Interactions
The digital transformation of workplaces has made virtual meetings an integral part of our professional lives. While they offer numerous benefits, it’s essential to understand the underpinnings of virtual meeting fatigue. As this study from Aalto University highlights, engagement plays a pivotal role in our virtual experiences. By fostering a culture of active participation and minimizing distractions, we can optimize these interactions for better productivity and well-being.