The Rise of Videoconferencing
The current Coronavirus Pandemic has brought misery to many, and death to over 1.5 million people worldwide. A huge number of businesses are under severe financial strain, or have ceased to trade. The major exceptions are tech companies who conduct all of their business online especially, as I have mentioned earlier, Amazon. As the World has gone into lockdown of various degrees, some other tech winners in the pandemic have been the providers of videoconferencing services, especially the omnipresent Zoom. I suspect most people had never heard of Zoom before 2020, but widespread use has led the company’s revenues to leap 355% to $663.5 million for the quarter ending 31 July, exceeding analysts’ expectations of $500.5 million. In the same period profits soared to $186 million, while customer growth was up 458% compared with the same period in 2019.
Concerns About the Zoom Software
Zoom’s soaring popularity strained its infrastructure, leading to outages in the US earlier in the year. It has faced political scrutiny due to its links with China, and again earlier in the year a number of concerns were raised about the security of the service. These concerns included Zoom installer worries, questionable routing, dubious encryption, and the phenomenon of Zoom-bombing. Although the company claims to have addressed some of these issues, virtually all of them are still mentioned in an article on makeuseof.com dated 21 November 2020. For those concerned about these facts, advice on securing your Zoom chat can be found here, but none of this stuff seems to be halting Zoom’s irresistible rise.
The service is so ubiquitous that when psychological problems related to using videoconferencing software began to be recognised the term “Zoom Anxiety” was born. This is loosely defined as “a physical feeling of distress caused by video calls”. A survey of 2,066 home workers showed that 73% of them had experienced Zoom Anxiety this year. Google has also noted a 180% increase in UK residents searching for the term between March and November this year.
The survey identified a number of triggers for Zoom Anxiety. In order of frequency, these were:
(1) Having tech/audio problems and not knowing how to fix them (83%);
(2) Being unable to read the caller’s body language (67%);
(3) Feeling like you are being unheard (56%);
(4) Being put on a call without time to prepare appearance (41%);
(5) Worrying about unprofessional background (34%);
(6) Being talked over when trying to make your points (31%);
(7) Having too many people to focus on (23%);
(8) Worrying about how you look on camera (18%);
(9) Having to manage call screen with presentations and documents (15%);
(10) Not knowing what to do with your hands (9%).
Regarding which tasks provoke most anxiety, these were: presenting (42%); interviews (25%); client meetings (18%); and team catch-ups (15%).
It is said that 15% of our communication is done verbally, and that the other 85% of our message is sent through body language. A lot of this is obviously missing in a Zoom interaction. Many people feel it is a strain to stare at a screen for long periods wearing a “happy mask”. Some people hate looking at themselves on a screen (especially if they are having “a bad hair day”), and many folk find trying to look at several other people at once on a grid setup feels uncomfortable. Some individuals have particular problems with digital hangouts on Zoom.
Specific problems related to videoconferencing obviously don’t occur in a vacuum: the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a general increase in psychological problems, including anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances. Even before COVID-19, and the huge upswing in home working and videoconferencing, anxiety disorders were known to be very common: for example, 15 million adults in the USA are said to suffer from social anxiety. People who have an existing anxiety disorder, or who struggle with technology, are clearly more likely to have Zoom Anxiety.
Help for Anxiety re Presentations
A number of strategies have been recommended to try and reduce Zoom Anxiety. Clearly from the above, presentations via Zoom are a major source of stress, and the team that did the survey have some suggestions about “Presenting without anxiety”. These can be summarised as (1) practice your presentation, including being familiar with the software used eg PowerPoint; (2) treat video presentation as if you were presenting in the usual way; (3) make sure you know how to share screens and fix common audio problems; (4) convince yourself that you are coming over better than you previously thought; (5) consider general stress relief measures eg exercise, meditation. More tips on presentation anxiety in general can be found here.
General Measures for Zoom Anxiety
General measures to reduce Zoom Anxiety include: (1) considering whether other ways of cooperative working, eg shared documents, might work better for a particular project than videoconferencing; (2) participants should consider switching off their camera, if possible, during Zoom sessions; (3) recharge time should be allowed between sessions; (4) people should always be given good notice of a videoconference; (5) participants who have Zoom Anxiety should be encouraged to share their concerns with their colleagues (who may be suffering too), and their managers.
It is difficult to know if the mushrooming of home working and videoconferencing caused by the pandemic is temporary, or if it will lead to persistent major changes in the ways that people do their jobs. Some people love working from home: they don’t have to use up time travelling to work, and they may find it easier to fit the other aspects of their life around home working. For others, home working may make them more stressed, and feel more isolated. If these people have psychological difficulties with the technology involved too, it can only make their situation worse.