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The Boss Says It’s OK to Take a Break From Zoom. Why Are You Still on Video Calls?

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The Boss Says It’s OK to Take a Break From Zoom. Why Are You Still on Video Calls?

Some employers are giving their Zoomed-out workers a break.

From tech startups to sprawling hospitals, businesses say they are trying to dial back time employees spend in remote meetings after realizing that hours spent on video calls every day have taken a toll. Still, some employees have a hard time breaking the Zoom habit, even with their bosses telling them to stop.

Executives making the switch say meeting schedules ballooned in the pandemic’s early days, largely due to the perceived ease of video calls and a desire to maintain workday normalcy as much of the country sheltered in place.

“Zoom fatigue is real,” said Abby Payne, chief people officer at

SailPoint Technologies Holdings Inc.

The Austin, Texas, company has instituted a ban on meetings from 10 a.m. to noon every Tuesday and Thursday.

Employee comments about sitting down at their computers at 7 a.m. and not getting up for 12 hours helped prompt the move, Ms. Payne said. “This is really a way for the organization as a whole to address both the fatigue of staring into a computer and also the reality that half of us have little ones,” she added.

The 1,000-person company enacted the restriction on meetings in August when it realized many employees would be juggling work while also raising children who would be attending school remotely in the fall. “I don’t anticipate that it will go away anytime soon,” she said.

Corporate America’s pre-pandemic battle cry to reduce unnecessary meetings gave way to a more-is-better mentality when those meetings moved on-screen. Executives boasted about being able to fit in more meetings a day by cutting out travel time, and workers accepted every meeting invitation to stay plugged in or because they felt they had to. Several employers say some workers feel isolated at home and crave video calls even when they’re not needed.

The pull of video calling can be strong. “There was this knee-jerk response that, ‘We can do this, but everybody has to keep to a traditional work schedule and everybody has to be on Zoom,’ ” said Kip Eideberg, vice president of government and industry relations for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

Staffers there ramped up their video calls early in the pandemic, he said, in some cases using Zoom for meetings that would have been phone-only before the pandemic. This summer it implemented “quiet Fridays,” where virtual meetings are banned and employees are encouraged to keep emails and phone calls to a minimum.

Kip Eideberg, of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which implemented ‘quiet Fridays’ this summer.



Photo:

Chris Swingle

A chunk of the trade group’s staffers have struggled to adhere, he said. As lobbyists, they are accustomed to near-constant interpersonal interactions, which makes being physically isolated difficult for many, he said. Many also feel they need to attend external meetings.

“Hitting the video call button versus the phone call button is now almost part of the DNA,” Mr. Eideberg said.

Staffers at tech firm

Twilio Inc.

struggled initially with no-meeting Fridays when the San Francisco company, with 3,200 employees, implemented the practice in April, Christy Lake, chief people officer, said in an interview conducted over Zoom on a recent Friday.

A few attempted to schedule Friday meetings with her despite the mandate. Others got frazzled as they tried to cram five days’ worth of meetings into four days. She said staffers, including herself, still schedule external meetings on Fridays if necessary.

“There was some internal resistance of, ‘I don’t have to have meetings, but I probably should anyway,’ ” said Christine Sunu, a Twilio manager. She said senior leaders persisted in telling workers to keep Fridays meeting-less and the message eventually sunk in.

Ms. Sunu, who works with one team that was mostly remote before the pandemic and another that wasn’t, realized the time she had previously spent on commutes, lunch breaks or traveling between meetings was valuable for collecting and processing her thoughts.

“It’s difficult in what feels like an emergency situation to really establish those spaces for yourself,” she said. “To have leaders say, ‘We’re not going to have meetings on Friday because it’s important to set boundaries when you are basically living at work,’ it was a relief.”

Limiting remote meetings is critical to avoiding worker burnout, said Laura Dudley, a behavior analyst at Northeastern University. “Suddenly the quarantine happens and we’re all on our screens, and we’re, like, ‘It is what it is’” Ms. Dudley said. “Why are we not challenging the notion that it is what it is?”

Factors inherent in remote meetings, such as constant eye contact with colleagues, seeing yourself on the screen and sitting long hours in home furniture not intended for office work, create “a combination of mental fatigue as well as physical fatigue” for workers, she said.

Employees have been spending a lot of time online.



Photo:

Cooper Neill/Bloomberg News

Those issues prompted Shibu Varghese, human-resources chief at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, to roll out “Focused Wednesday Afternoons” for its 22,000 employees.

The idea is a midweek break from any technology-based communication, be it video calls or phone calls. Rather than declare a companywide mandate, Mr. Varghese said, top executives began encouraging the practice among their direct reports, who in turn passed down the concept.

“People just felt like they couldn’t keep up, that the whole virtual connection and being on calls all day was really burning out our workforce,” he said. “Why don’t we give them an opportunity to reset, to heal, and to sort of prioritize their week.”

Clorox Co.

, the Oakland, Calif.-based maker of household staples, experimented with a Zoom-free “quiet day” this summer. Employees’ reaction, quantified in a workplace survey shortly afterward, was so resoundingly positive that the company has instituted monthly quiet days and will tell workers to stay off Zoom the week of Thanksgiving.

Even companies that haven’t enacted outright bans on Zoom meetings are looking for ways to lessen the strain of virtual meetings. Feather, a rental furniture company that employs about 100 people, is planning to begin adding a note to meeting agendas and invites, making it clear that participants should feel no obligation to enable their cameras.

The effort is “giving you permission to say, ’Don’t worry about taking a shower, don’t worry about doing your hair, whatever it is that you’re concerned about.’ You can keep your camera off, this can be a phone call,” said Zach Ragland, the New York City company’s head of people.

Write to Sharon Terlep at sharon.terlep@wsj.com

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