Why Zoom meetings really do leave you exhausted

By Joseph Radigan

Marc Staut recalled the disappointment felt by some of his CPA firm clients as they introduced new information systems about a year ago.

The project planning went fine. So did training the client firms’ professionals. The rollout may have been a bit aggressive in its scheduling, but it, too, went off without a hitch, and the new systems were in place, just waiting to be put to use.

None of the firms’ professionals touched them.

“It turned out they were just exhausted,” said Staut, the chief innovation and information officer for Boomer Consulting Inc. “They had spent so much time trying to learn some of these new ideas, some of these concepts, that they were feeling overwhelmed.”

Staut cited the incident during his “Managing Technostress” session Thursday at the AICPA’s ENGAGE 2020 digital conference.

Technostress is not a new term. It has been around for decades since being identified in the mid-1980s during the personal computer revolution’s first wave as one of the main obstacles to using information technology productively.

Staut cited a survey from Springer Nature’s Education & Language division that defined technostress as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with new computer technologies in a healthy manner.”

It’s not that people can’t handle computers, smartphones, and other technologies intended to make their jobs easier. The sticking point is their inability to use the computer in a healthy manner that properly balances their professional and personal responsibilities.

“We have to understand the impact of the technology and what we’re asking for it to do,” Staut said. “Then we can start to think about, ‘hey, are we really handling this in a way that is helpful, that is going to be beneficial for us. Or are we just holding on as the new technologies come flying at us?’”

COVID-19 and Zoom fatigue

The stress has been greatly aggravated in the months since COVID-19 lockdowns and remote-work requirements imposed a new way of life and work on most white-collar workers in the United States. The abrupt change demonstrated to many people that technology setups that were adequate for evening and weekend workloads weren’t suited for 50-hour or 60-hour workweeks with no backup.

The shelter-in-place restrictions also prompted some academics and other researchers to examine a challenge that has affected workers during the pandemic — Zoom fatigue.

“It is actually exhausting, more exhausting, to be watching what we call the Brady Bunch view, or all the different squares on a videoconference, than it is to actually be interacting with the same number of people in person,” Staut said. “You are trying to focus on each and every one of those boxes. So if there are 16 people on a videoconference, and you can see all of their faces at the same time, your brain is trying to read their body language, all at the same time, and it is exhausting.”

When computers give warm-up time the boot

Technostress occurs even when employees go to the office each day. Staut recalled when employees complained about the time saved when their companies replaced older laptops and desktops using hard disk drives with newer computers equipped with solid-state drives. A PC with a hard disk drive can eat up several minutes before it has warmed up. Employees conditioned themselves to use the time to get a cup of coffee and socialize with colleagues. That opportunity seemed lost once new PCs with solid-state drives were installed and booted up in a fraction of the time. Staut said employees let him know of their displeasure.

“Their habits had been disrupted because they didn’t need to have that time anymore,” he said. “They felt like the technology’s ready; I have to start working on it right now. I have less time to socialize, and here we are with the technology really starting to intrude on their mental well-being.”

Staut added, “The technology shifted their mindset and infringed on their habits to make them want to sit down and want to start working faster. That was really good for some of the efficiency of the firm but not so good from a psychology perspective.”

Ways to relieve technostress

Where does the technostress trend leave employers and employees? Are we all destined to spend the rest of our lives miserable in a virtual cell of silicon? Not so, Staut said. Some solutions are available.

Managers need to start with an awareness that technology burnout is real and wreaks havoc on employees. They also need to ask their direct reports about their emotional well-being, and be honest about their own, because of the coronavirus and the stress of technology overload.

For example, Boomer Consulting does a monthly well-being check of its staff. The firm also makes an effort to recognize that employees can only handle so much change at one time.

“We need to be cautious in how many things we’re taking on at the same time,” Staut said.

He also advised accounting firms to make sure they update their workplace policies and processes to accommodate the new technology.

“If you have ineffective processes, how fast can a train really go when its tracks look like spaghetti?” Staut said. “You can’t optimize your technology if you haven’t defined your processes. Those two things have to happen simultaneously.”

As far as employee training is concerned, firms should recognize that not all employees learn in the same manner or at the same speed, Staut said. Some learn better with one-on-one training. Some are fine with remote learning. Others excel in classroom instruction. Employees also need to be trained on new systems at a pace that matches their ability to absorb the information.

On top of that, firms need to be prudent in how they schedule the training on new systems.

“Training on a new technology system that you’re not truly going to be rolling out for another three months is completely pointless,” Staut said. “You can give them an intro to it; you can show them what it’s going to look like. But thinking that they’re not going to practice it for three months, and then all of a sudden they’re going to be experts at it, when it’s going to be live, is a mistake I see way too many people make.”

The last step requires firms and managers to set boundaries that clearly divide work and home. This is especially important at a time when work and home are the same place.

“You have to have some boundaries about when you will and when you won’t be checking in or when you are setting expectations for when you’ll be available to your clients or to your team,” Staut said. “We need to train people that it’s OK not to be plugged in all the time and not to have those expectations.”

Joseph Radigan is a financial writer based in New York. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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