Story at a glance

  • After schools and workplaces went remote due to the risk of COVID-19 spread, video conferencing platforms such as Zoom have become ubiquitous.
  • One year after many Americans started working and living from home, there is a general sense of pandemic fatigue.
  • A new study analyzed the ways in which Zoom calls trigger the “fight or flight” survival reflex in users.

Does every meeting need to be a Zoom call? Americans are marking the one-year anniversary of stay-at-home orders and remote working with a growing sense of pandemic fatigue. And a new study finds that staring at your coworkers’ faces, up-close and personal, and your own is probably triggering your “fight or flight” survival reflex.   

"The brain is particularly attentive to faces, and when we see large ones, we interpret them as being close. Our 'fight or flight' reflex responds," Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told Business Insider. He added, "From an evolutionary standpoint, if there was a very large human face close by to you, and it was staring right in your eyes, you were likely going to engage in conflict or mating. Neither responses are a good fit for a work meeting.”


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They’re not, but the number of users on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms has skyrocketed from the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands in the last year. And while they’re physically distant, users are making prolonged eye contact through the screen at a close distance for longer periods of time than ever before. At the same time, nonverbal cues are distorted (is your boss making a face at what you just said, or a family member just out of camera view?) and physical movements are restricted. 

It's not just staring at others' faces in a box all day that's got you tired of video conferencing, but staring at your own as well. Seeing your image reflected in the camera can be stressful, research shows, consciously and unconsciously leading to self-criticism and negative mental health consequences. 


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Even as Americans gradually return to the workplace over the coming year, "videoconferencing is here to stay," concludes Bailenson. Like many other pandemic phenomena, Zoom and its counterparts are likely to become a part of the new normal.

“Even when face-to-face meetings will become safe again, it is likely the culture has finally shifted enough to remove some of the previously held stigmas against virtual meetings," he wrote. "With slight changes to the interface, Zoom has the potential to continue to drive productivity and reduce carbon emissions by replacing the commute.”

For this reason, Bailenson says that although he’s not singling out Zoom to "vilify" the company, there are both smaller and bigger changes that could improve the experience. New technology, such as virtual reality, could also provide better solutions to the limitations of virtual interactions. 

Until then, the next time you’re planning a meeting, ask yourself, could this meeting be a phone call? Or better yet — an email?


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Published on Mar 08, 2021