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Communication Fatigue: Can Spatial Audio Reduce Burnout?

by Emily Iwankovitsch Social Media Marketing Manager

Ready to hear a few excellent, researched reasons on why it’ll actually help to turn your video off while in that virtual meeting, and focus on the audio instead? After this past year and a half, we probably all are.

As of Q3 in 2021, the number of annual meeting minutes on Zoom is now over 3.3 trillion. That’s an increase of 65% from the 2 trillion meeting minutes logged in the previous quarter, Q2 in 2021. Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, annual Zoom meeting minutes have increased by 3300% in Q3 of 2021. Wow.

Using “Zoom” as a verb has become commonplace. Especially during the pandemic, not only has Zoom proved increasingly useful for businesses worldwide, but for reconnecting with family and friends, too. Their technology brought humans together time and time again when birthday parties, school gatherings, even weddings couldn’t be hosted in person due to COVID-19.

But of course, another well known phrase has emerged with it: Zoom fatigue. (Applicable to all videoconferencing software, not just Zoom!)

You may have seen the research from Stanford as of February 2021, where Jeremy Bailenson examined the psychological consequences of spending hours videoconferencing. “Humans have taken one of the most natural things in the world – an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought. You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”

Bailenson noted in his research, though: “The arguments are based on academic theory and research, but also have yet to be directly tested in the context of Zoom, and require future experimentation to confirm.”

Well, now that research has arrived: an in-person field experiment. (And as a bonus… a nod to great environmental research earlier in 2021 as supporting evidence!) Afterwards, we’ll discuss what else helps to specifically reduce burnout.

Turn Cameras Off to Reduce Communication Fatigue

Yes, it has been confirmed by research (although we think you are not probably surprised, and weren’t holding your breath on this one): Feeling drained after a day of virtual meetings is worse for those who keep their cameras on throughout those meetings. The study also shows communication fatigue effects are often stronger for women and newer employees, too.

Kristen M. Shockley et al. conducted a 4 week experiment involving 103 participants and more than 1,400 observations. “Participants were recruited from BroadPath, a company within the healthcare sector that employs several thousand remote workers throughout the United States, in August – September 2020. The workforce was largely remote before the pandemic and has a camera optional policy; estimates were that 40%–50% of staff turned their cameras on during a meeting prior to the study. Participants were then randomly assigned to one of two conditions: half of the participants kept their camera on (or off) for the first 2 weeks of the study, and then switched to keeping their cameras off (or on) for the last 2 weeks. At 6:30 p.m. each day, participants were sent a text message containing a link to the daily survey assessing fatigue, voice, and engagement for that workday.”

And then they confirmed: The people who had their cameras on reported more communication fatigue than their non-camera using counterparts. Even more interesting, Shockley et al. noted: "And that fatigue actually correlated to less voice and less engagement during meetings. So, in reality, those who had cameras on were potentially participating less than those not using cameras. This counters the conventional wisdom that cameras are required to be engaged in virtual meetings."

There it is, folks. Expecting employees to turn on cameras is simply not the best way to go. Reduce burnout: Give your employees the autonomy to choose. And importantly, any assumptions about distractedness or (lack of) productivity if someone chooses to keep their camera off — well, those thoughts need to see their way out.

To dig in a bit more about why communication fatigue disproportionately affects women and newer employees, Shockley et al. writes: "Employees who tend to be more vulnerable in terms of their social position in the workplace, such as women and newer, less tenured employees, have a heightened feeling of fatigue when they must keep cameras on during meetings. Women often feel the pressure to be effortlessly perfect or have a greater likelihood of child care interruptions, and newer employees feel like they must be on camera and participate in order to show productiveness.”

And to drive our point home just a little more, let’s look at one other benefit of turning your camera off.

Turn Cameras Off to Reduce Environmental Impact of Virtual Meetings

Yes, you can even reduce your environmental footprint in virtual meetings by 96 percent by turning off your camera.

Kelley Travers writes, “Conducted by a team from MIT, Purdue University, and Yale University, the study uncovers the impacts that internet use has on the environment. This is especially significant considering that many countries have reported at least a 20 percent increase in internet use since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. One hour of streaming or videoconferencing can emit between 150 and 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, depending on the service.”

Check out the full paper for more statistics and information — even reducing your video streaming quality (from HD to standard) can help.

But even better? You can just turn it off. Travers writes, “Using publicly available data, the researchers give a rough estimate of the carbon, water, and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in common online apps such as Netflix, Instagram, TikTok, Zoom, and 14 other platforms, as well as general web surfing and online gaming. They find that the more video used, the higher the footprints.”

Kaveh Madan, who led and directed this study, says: “Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So, without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint.”

And every little bit certainly helps (after all, the period from June through August this year was the hottest on record in the United States, exceeding even the Dust Bowl summer of 1936). Reduce communication fatigue and your environmental impact! 

So… what more can we do to reduce burnout even further?

Spatial Audio Reduces Burnout

This is the exciting part: You don’t have to settle for only turning your camera off to reduce burnout. In fact, there is a way you can actually decrease your cognitive load, while improving speech intelligibility — and it’s called spatial audio.

Check out this blog post to get all the details, but in summary: “Two cues are particularly important for understanding others: The voice frequency characteristics and the spatial separation between talkers. Likewise, higher intelligibility can be attained when the target and the masker are spatially separate,” writes Guillaume Andéol et al.

So not only does spatial audio help create a more natural and immersive virtual environment for people, but it actually helps humans understand one another better.

Clubhouse’s Head of Streaming, Justin Uberti, recently spoke about this as well after they integrated High Fidelity’s Local Spatializer on their native social audio app. He explained for TechCrunch, “Your mind has to figure out who’s talking. Without spatial cues you have to use timbre… that requires more cognitive effort. [Spatial audio] could actually make for a more enjoyable experience aside from more immersion.”

If you’re working on a native app, too, you can learn more about integrating our Local Spatializer right here.

Or is the app you’re working on web-based? We also have an API that is easy to integrate.

Published by Emily Iwankovitsch September 16, 2021

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