The current lockdown has added new problems to our work (as if we didn’t have enough already).
One of them is Zoom fatigue, a term for the exhaustion people feel due to incessant video-conferencing on Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangout.
This exhaustion, experts reason, occurs because we cannot over video calls the things we can do we can do face-to-face. Like recognizing and processing important non-verbal cues from others, or understanding what a speaker is saying if she has a poor internet connection, or making sense of multi-person speak at the same time.
This information overload drains people at the end of each call. Their exhaustion is similar to a mild version of autistic burnout. And with the number of video conference calls skyrocketing, it’s aggravating fast.
Various do’s and don’ts to combat Zoom fatigue are afloat on the internet. Like not eating crunchy snacks, not moving squeaky chairs, raising questions through chat boxes, and more.
These suggestions mean well. But they fail to address an important point that has flown under the radar. Zoom fatigue is not the real problem. It’s a symptom to a much deeper problem: the lack of productivity
Productivity has been a crucial metric since the concept of “work” originated.
During the industrial era, the rise of assembly lines gave rise to the Efficiency Movement, whose founder, Frederic Taylor, stood beside workers with a stopwatch to monitor their efficiency. On assembly lines, productivity got measured by the number of widgets workers cranked out per shift.
In the knowledge era, we’re not sure what productivity means. So we use a modified version of Taylor’s metric: the quantum of work done. Companies equate increasing output with doing more work or cranking out more widgets.
All seemed fine when people followed this practice at the office. The problems began (rather, surfaced) when people tried to simulate the same practice while working from home.
Cranking Widgets From Home
In the current scenario, managers cannot physically watch their people work. So they’ve tried to build remote versions of Taylor’s stopwatch.
Like tracking the number of hours for which people log in, making them fill daily to-do sheets, forcing them to join virtual team-building activities, and even demanding that they work on weekends.
Discussions about urgent tasks that would get done quickly at the office have turned into elaborate back-and-forth affairs, choking people’s already clogged work-pipelines.
Add to this a spike in the number of water-cooler chats and status-update meetings, all on video conference.
People have to juggle through all this, which affects their attention spans. The additional work burden means they’re getting less done despite working longer hours. And let’s not forget that they have no space to process the emotions they’re currently feeling during this pandemic.
So you see? Zoom fatigue isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the real problem: workplace processes that look great on paper but are horribly ineffective in practice.
Today, most of us don’t get paid to stand at an assembly line, though we still work as if we do.
We don’t get paid to constantly interrupt others in their work for something we need in order to do out work… which we cannot complete thanks to interruptions from others. Yet, we’ve turned into Homo Interruptus.
How should we tackle these problems?
The Antidote to Work Fatigue
We haven’t discovered a proven antidote to the coronavirus yet.
But the antidote to work fatigue has existed for long. It is simply this: prioritize effectiveness (better results) over efficiency (number of tasks).
This means we must work on a few important tasks for long, uninterrupted periods at the expense of urgent, unimportant tasks. (Most of them will take care of themselves anyway.)
It demands that we embrace an upstreamist mindset i.e. preventing problems from occurring rather than dousing the same fires over and over again.
It requires clear communication from leaders to inform their people about what’s expected from them and how they’ll get evaluated.
It involves sticking to goals rather than abandoning them or shifting the goalpost every week. Consistency is a six-month game, not a six-day game.
In Chaos Lies Opportunity
Many successful companies will be born in this lockdown and the expected recession that will follow.
Successful companies possess the ability to innovate and execute their clear vision quickly. This comes from their will to experiment, learn, adapt, and eventually achieve their goals.
If you want to build such a company, let your people work as they should in the 21st century.
Stop water-cooler video chats. Limit your status meetings to ten minutes. It’s also important to give your people space in this uncertain environment to work things out in their own lives.
At Content Sutra, we have just one status meeting at the beginning of the week where each of us sets our own goals. Team members get space within a framework to work meaningfully on their tasks rather than us constantly imposing tasks on them. Only if someone misses a deadline do we get into a discussion to figure out the challenges they might be facing.
Bill Gates famously said,
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second rule is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
Our fixation with redundant processes has turned technology into a bane instead of a boon. It has caused countless breakdowns in workflows since we began working from home.
Let’s address the right problems. Rather than addressing Zoom fatigue, address faulty processes and policies that make interruptions the norm and pull people away from their work.
Great leaders use constraints to bring about improvement. They equip their people with the tools they need to produce better results instead of trying to be seen as managers who are on top of everything.
Bad companies will get destroyed in this crisis. Good companies will scrape through. Great companies will thrive. So can yours, if you solve the right problems.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Do leave a comment.