Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

A majority of people I chatted online are polarized and divided on the global experimental movement of working from home. Facebook and Twitter approve of it, while Microsoft begs to differ. Most people wistfully hope to return to normalcy in the next half of the year. Several others have adapted well to the new normal and found solace in solitude. 

If you have recently been on Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Rooms, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, all too often you would find yourself either: doing nothing or doing too many things all at once.

Chances are, you are more likely to be texting or multitasking while the speaker is talking animatedly across the screen. Researchers have demonstrated why it’s not healthy to multitask with 10 tabs open during online meetings. Heavy multitaskers suffer from poor memories on cognitive tasks and sacrifice 40% of their productive time.

Zoom fatigue

As a result of multitasking and maintaining online presence, you might experience Zoom fatigue. Some people over-schedule, over-commit, overstretch and overwork themselves, which ultimately lead to burnout.

The malaise is not entirely unfounded. It probably comes from the intense German stare and prolonged gaze from an acquaintance on the video call, which you may not know well in person. It feels as if your private space has been encroached and invaded.

On a video interview, we are only at an arm’s length of 2.3 feet (0.7 meters) away from the job interviewers across the screen. In fact, we are subconsciously letting unfamiliar faces into an exclusively personal space.

Prior to COVID-19, we typically talk to close friends and family members with a comfortable personal space of 1.5 to 4 feet (0.45 to 1.2 meters). Now we don’t even walk or sit with strangers if we’re any closer than 6 feet (2 meters) in a public transit.

We don’t approach new acquaintances on the streets at this distance. In real life, we need a social distance of 4 to 12 feet (1.2 to 3.6 meters) to feel at ease to strike up a conversation with an acquaintance. Or 12 feet (3.6 meters) away from a public speaker on stage.

We don’t watch TV this close either. Even if a TV has a small 25-inch LED screen, we normally sit 2.5 feet (0.76 meters) away from the TV.

Interpersonal distances by WebHamster — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Zoom fatigue may also come from the mental overload to process all the visual and auditorial environmental cues simultaneously. There are possibilities of potential Zoom fails, mishaps, videobombing and a thousand other unexpected situations.

We may also get a glimpse of the speaker’s cluttered room with laundry piling up behind. A child and a toddler might charge in during your video conference with BBC. We might not hear the other end shouting “can’t hear you” before the internet breaks down, again.

Such awkwardly close encounters can be downright disturbing from a psychological perspective. In fact, it resonates uncannily with Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “bringing the world closer together”. We are too close for comfort figuratively, if not literally.

Remote workers are 50% less likely to quit

In an oft-cited study, Stanford researchers compared the work performances of office workers and remote workers. If you google “work from home paper”, it’s the first to appear.

While capital and labor inputs dwindled, the productivity of workers increased 20% to 30% after they started working from home. They take fewer food and toilet breaks. They also worked 10% more minutes per day.

Paradoxically, the 2014 paper titled “Does Working From Home Work?” were written by authors at the comfort of their own homes.

The verdict is in: People working from home are more productive, efficient than those who are confined to office cubicles. They also thrive better at home than in an open office environment.

A silent force to be reckoned, remote workers make up a happier, younger task force. Their attrition rate is halved after working from home. They are less exhausted, less stressed, and less likely to quit.

Despite the freedom and flexibility to work whenever, wherever and however they want, half of the participants in the 9-month long Stanford study yearned to go back to office. They would acquiesce to 80 minutes of commute to office every day, rather than working in isolation.

How (not) to be omnipresent online

Timebox your calendar one week in advance. Space events and meetings out so you do not get back-to-back video calls in a row. I usually schedule a whitespace of 2 to 3 days in between online classes.

Set your own quasi-office hours. Decline meetings outside of those hours. Resist allotting more time to an event or task than necessary. Ignore Parkinson’s Law at your peril.

“Meetings expand to fill all of the time available on your calendar — it’s the law of meetings.” — Arianna Huffington

Reduce online meeting times by half if you can. Be frugal with your time, like a thrifty shopper would bargain for 50% discounts in a flea market. A supposedly 60-minute meeting can be decidedly less than 30-minutes.

Go above and beyond the average speech rate to stay within the time limit of a 40-min Zoom video call. Challenge the Guinness’ world record speaking speed of 637 words per minute.

Automate email replies with “out of office” message or canned responses. Be responsive but not permanently online. Reply to your work emails and social post comments in a timely manner. Ensure critical emails from your boss are not left unread, lost, blocked or deleted.

Find the peak times where your inbox get flooded by a predictable influx of work emails or meeting invites. Cal Newport checks emails twice per day at 10am and 2pm. Tim Ferriss checks his inbox at 11am and 4pm. Most of the emails I received were sent at 11am before lunch break, and 4pm before the workday ends.

Tap into the power of apps. Buffer schedules your social media posts. Calendly schedules appointments. Asana manages collaborative projects remotely. is an expensive version of Asana.

Too many apps to oscillate back and forth? Here’s yet another app to link all your 50 apps seamlessly: Zapier. Zapier synchronizes 2,000 apps from Gmail to Slack, from Airtable to Discord, and GitHub to GitLab.

Turn video calls into the good old phone calls. Instead of putting in laser focus to video calls, you can walk, drive, cycle, queue for the bus, and still talk through the phone. Phone calls and cold emails are often the safest bet if you are contacting clients for the first time.