You’re tired because your lizard brain knows that Zoom meetings aren’t natural

Remote work isn’t normal. It’s great when it’s not quarantine work, to be clear. I’ve worked remotely with success for over 13 years and written about it extensively. I’m pro-remote work. But.

Doing zoom calls all day can be super productive but they are also physically and emotionally exhausting. One of the reasons that isn’t helping you is that a zoom meeting isn’t a natural human state – it’s a simulation of one and your body knows the truth.

I’m using “Zoom” the brand here as a pervasive generic verb like folks use Kleenex for tissue or Google for any websearch. I zoom with Teams and google with Bing, for example. You get the idea.

So what do I mean when I say “remote work isn’t normal?” Why such a declarative statement? Because I’d propose that our lizard brains know that we’re talking to ourselves, alone in a room.

“The brain stem, the cerebellum, and the basal ganglia – commonly known as “the lizard brain” because it’s the part we inherited from our reptilian predecessors – are responsible for fight or flight responses, fear, suspicion, and anxiety. The lizard brain kept our ancestors safe when a panther pounced from a limb just overhead. In an ironic twist, these most ancient parts of the brain are making it difficult for us to think rationally at a time when rational thought is key to our survival.” – Courier Journal

Your body knows the people aren’t there. Their electricity isn’t in the room with you. They are flat. All their voices come from one point in space, not from all over the room. There is no sense of space. Even worse if you have headphones. They are 3 inch tall tiny talking heads while their voices are 1 inch from your ears. There’s a strange detached intimacy where you’re both closely connected to the group virtually while utterly disengaged physically.

Teams and Zoom calls aren't natural

A Brady Bunch grid of faces is not what the brain expects when you’re having a meeting, so we’re constantly fighting against the cognitive dissonance, the background process load, the psychic weight, that we ARE in the same room talking with our co-workers.

Your conscious brain says you’re having a chat in a room with a dozen of your co-workers but the unconscious brain says you’re not. It’s small but I’d propose it’s there. Doing this for hours and hours can give you the same kind of unease that you get from flying in a plane. You get off the plane and you’re exhausted from sitting. Sure there’s humidity and oxygen issues but there’s also the “you know you’re moving but parts of your brain disagrees” cognitive load that can’t be ignored.

Remote video group calls are an amazing enabling technology but it’s also enabling to acknowledge that they can be draining. That simple acknowledgement – huh, that’s a thing! – is itself empowering. If you name it you can claim it. It’s not just you!


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