CHRO Community Conversation explores options for managing Zoom fatigue

HR leaders discuss whether online meetings are getting in the way of employee wellness and work.

The new normal induced by Covid-19 has certainly made 2020 the year of Zoom meetings – and the relatively new phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. During this week’s CHRO Community Conversation, hosted in partnership with Workday, founder of Beyond the Dress Lori Milner provided HR leaders with practical ways to build employee mental wellness toolkits to address online overwhelm.

Lori set the scene by explaining that working from home also meant that employees had lost the non-stressful and impromptu conversations that would generally take place around the office water cooler.

With work interactions taking place almost exclusively online for knowledge workers, every conversation was effectively a formal conversation. That can lead to a spike in stress levels whenever an employee attends an online meeting, as it is experienced as the equivalent of giving a presentation.

The reality is that having meetings online is the new way of doing business, which is why HR professionals have to look at ways to change how people deal with stress and manage their mental wellness.

Lori explained that the initial adrenaline boost that many people felt at the start of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions was a result of being in survival mode.

“Adrenaline levels are now depleted and employees have moved out of survival mode. It is therefore important to stop certain habits, maintain others and introduce new ways of working in the new normal,” Lori noted.

This will help to ensure a return on meeting time for both the organisation and the employee.

Attention residue

Lori said multitasking is the key culprit in creating what she called ‘attention residue’. This is where emails, texts and even notifications popping up on screen compete for attention while employees are in an online meeting.

“We all think we’ll quickly send an email or respond to WhatsApp while on a Zoom or Teams call and multitask as a result. We have created guidelines for people: to be very clear about the agenda and also whether you are attending as a contributor or an observer. Being intentional has certainly helped,” added KFC Africa HR Director Cheryl Whitaker.

When it comes to online meetings, Cheryl said time management was king. This meant sticking to the agreed meeting times, creating a time buffer between meetings, providing comfort breaks during long meetings, and even implementing no-meeting days.

Ruth Wotela, People Wellness Executive at Silverbridge, highlighted the importance of encouraging people to take time off regularly.

“We monitor this and in instances where people are not taking time off, we highlight this to their managers and enquire about the reasons for this. On Thursdays, we have given our teams freedom to decide how to navigate their approach to meetings. It’s about encouraging and setting guiding principles that enable teams and individuals to have more focused time away from meetings, while also empowering teams to do what works for them instead of setting a rigid set of rules.”

MTN’s regional talent lead Bess Skosana added, “We have a time difference due to the different geographies. So we agreed to a cut-off time for all meetings. We have also deliberately chosen a meeting-free day. We also encourage no meetings on weekends although the Middle-East region has a different work week. We also set aside dedicated time for meetings that are not work-related.”.

Practical tools

Separating office hours from home time is seen as essential to maintaining wellbeing – more so now, as work and home life have become quite enmeshed.

Lori offered practical tools that HR leaders can incorporate into the company’s wellness culture, like introducing meditation practices into the workplace.

“As part of building and strengthening the leadership's resilience muscle, we introduced mindfulness as a practice by asking people to take a moment to breathe, be still and be in the moment. It seems to be working for those who have adopted the practice,” concluded Alice Bhebhe, Director for Leadership Development at Pearson.

As the final tip for the HR wellness toolbox, Lori suggested that HR professionals appoint a chief energy officer to zap away Zoom fatigue.

“Find someone who can say, “It’s been an hour, let’s stand up or take a comfort break or focus on our breath.’ This will insert a mental pause and re-energise people,” she explained.