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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Aug 28, 2020


Video conferencing has rapidly increased in popularity, but the cognitive and attentional load can make it exhausting. In this week’s Leadership Today podcast we look at five ways to stop Zoom killing your focus. 



Hello and welcome to episode 92 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at five ways to stop Zoom killing your focus. 

Zoom and other video conferencing services have seen a rapid rise in popularity. People have flocked to video conferencing as the next best thing to a face-to-face meeting, particularly when trying to build social connection. During a global pandemic, video conferencing has proven to be a lifesaver for many people forced to work from home. It’s a testament to the quality of Zoom that the brand name is now synonymous with web-based video conferencing. We are becoming increasingly dependent on access to Zoom, as evidenced by a recent outage that disrupted millions of people including online schooling and businesses. 

And Zoom isn’t just a back up for when we can’t be face-to-face. Research conducted last year showed Zoom was rated positively for qualitative data collection in health care interviews, coming in ahead of face-to-face, phone and other video conferencing options when they factored efficiency into the equation.

Amidst all of that success and celebration there are recurring and largely anecdotal concerns emerging about the impact of video conferencing on our attention and energy levels. People report feeling drained and exhausted at the end of a full day of Zoom calls. It’s too early for there to be specific research about why this might be the case, but the field of attention research gives us some clues to why Zoom is killing our ability to focus.

Let’s face it, weird things happen on Zoom calls that would never happen in a ‘real’ meeting. We see people fixing their hair as they stare at themselves. People keep looking away from the camera to a second screen so you end up having a conversation with their ear. People eating anything looks disgusting - seriously, stop eating while using Zoom. We see people talking but no words are coming out - you’re on mute! Surprise people and their pets appear out of nowhere. People keep trying to talk at the same time which leads to a flurry of “no, no, you go first”. As we look behind people it feels like we are in a dozen different rooms at once. And, while we’re talking backgrounds, why not include an even more distracting virtual background? Sure, you’re on a beach, or drifting through space. In a sign of just how confused we are, we even feel the need to wave goodbye at the end of a Zoom call. It’s exhausting.

What are the challenges of Zoom calls, or indeed most other video conferencing tools? There are three main issues:

  1. Visual distractions. We are not used to seeing ourselves in action, and it’s easy to become fixated, or at least distracted, by how we look. It’s easy for the meeting to then feel like a performance. Simultaneously seeing multiple faces is also strange. We wouldn’t normally have people lined up in a grid like the start of the Brady Bunch, but rather be attending to one or two faces at any point in time. Reseach has repeatedly demonstrated that visual distractions significantly decrease our ability to focus and increase stress.

  2. Auditory distractions. The inability for everyone to speak at once is a real issue. The small delays and “loudest person wins” nature of Zoom make auditory processing a challenge. The audio itself is of a higher quality than a typical phone call, but it still feels more draining than a landline phone call due to these artefacts. 

  3. You can’t look into someone’s eyes. I might try to fake eye contact by staring at the camera, but then I can’t see you. Thankfully, research demonstrates that people are lousy at figuring out if we’re making eye contact in real life anyway. In fact researchers found that we can’t pick the difference between someone looking into our eyes versus looking predominantly at our mouth. But on Zoom, the distance between the camera and the person’s face is larger than a real human face - the effect of not making eye contact is more pronounced.

All of this leads to an increased cognitive and attentional load. We end up suffering from what researchers call continuous partial attention.

So Zoom - is it worth it? That largely depends on the work and what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re after interaction, trust and engagement, it’s hard to beat face-to-face. If face-to-face is not possible, Zoom is a great backup. We just need to recognise and manage the risks.

In particularly we need to minimise visual distractions - research has show that this leads to a 16% boost in performance for time-sensitive, high focus work, while also reducing stress by 18%. Reducing auditory distractions will also help. 

So how do we reduce distractions and the cognitive and attentional load of Zoom calls and meetings. Here are five suggestions:

  1. Hide the self view. Check that your video feed looks okay at the start of the call, then use the menu on your own image so you can no longer see yourself. Just keep in mind that others can still see you - there’s a reason webcams have little lights on them to show when you’re on. Search Zoom call fails on YouTube for some great examples.

  2. Use the speaker view. Rather than having everyone on screen at once in equal size boxes, shift to just being able to see the speaker. I’ve found this really helps me to focus on one person at a time, rather than trying to attend to a sea of faces.

  3. Mute when not speaking. Muting yourself reduces the audio distractions for others. We need to treat a Zoom call like it’s not fully duplex, particularly as group sizes increase. Despite any claims to the contrary, the experience of multiple people trying to speak at once is far more painful on Zoom than in real life. 

  4. Make it interactive. In the field of online learning there’s a popular myth that people can’t attend to any video that’s longer than 6 minutes. There doesn’t seem to be much concrete evidence to back that up and, in fact, research shows that you can increase beyond that easily by making the video more interactive. The same principle applies to Zoom calls. Use polls, chat, breakout rooms, annotations, reactions - anything to spice things up and make it less of a presentation.

  5. Reduce the length of your meetings. Recognise the cognitive and attentional load by making meetings shorter. As a rule of thumb I reduce the length of Zoom calls by a third to what I would expect people to engage in face-to-face.

And if none of that works, hey, here’s a crazy idea - why not try a phone conference call instead? Use a bit of variety and gain ideas and input from your team about how to improve things.

Now I’m sure a lot of these technical issues will become smoothed out over time. Someone will figure out how to mount a camera behind a screen to mimic face-to-face, and I’m sure the audio challenges will reduced. Perhaps people will listen back at this episode in 5 years and think - well, how quaint! However, keep in mind the broader principle that focus and distractions are enemies. Anything we can do to reduce visual and auditory distractions at work are going to make a difference, whether it’s online or in an office.

What have been your Zoom experiences? Make contact via the Leadership.Today website and let me know. I love a good story. Have a great week.



Archibald, M. M., Ambagtsheer, R. C., Casey, M. G., & Lawless, M. (2019). Using Zoom Videoconferencing for Qualitative Data Collection: Perceptions and Experiences of Researchers and Participants. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

Haworth Human Performance Lab. Visual Distraction Effects on Deliberate Focus Work.  2017

Kathy Roper and Parminder Juneja Distractions in the workplace revisited. May 2008 Journal of Facilities Management 6(2):91-109

Nitza Geri, Amir Winer, Beni Zaks. Challenging the six-minute myth of online video lectures: Can interactivity expand the attention span of learners? Online Journal of Applied Knowledge Management Volume 5, Issue 1, 2017

Shane L. Rogers, Oliver Guidetti, Craig P. Speelman, Melissa Longmuir, Ruben Phillips. Contact Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Eye Contact Illusion. Perception, 2019