Rethinking how our organizations can continue to function optimally in light of a global pandemic that for many is beginning to feel endless has become one of our one of our greatest leadership challenges. As colleges and universities have had to shift rapidly from physical to virtual environments, we are discovering new ways to make connections. But the pivot from working in physical settings to virtual ones has presented many challenges of its own. Now more than ever, it has become important for leaders to be able to “read the room,” even though the “room” consists of squares of talking heads on a computer monitor.
And while it is true that virtual environments can afford us the opportunity to connect with anyone from any location, they also have the potential to obscure and limit participants’ interactions. Video communication platforms reveal only superficial glances into the working lives of colleagues who have been sequestered at home for months. The challenge of how to create engagement in a virtual meeting has been made infinitely more challenging because participants often turn their mute button on or are muted by a moderator. Sometimes, instead of looking directly at the camera, participants either turn off their video camera or appear to look down and away at other devices during these virtual meetings. To an outside observer, virtual meeting participants such as those described here often appear to be apathetic, distracted, or disengaged, even if that is not the case.
This pervasive virtual environment is so ubiquitous that it has produced the new pandemic cultural phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.” Mentions of this “condition” and suggestions to combat it have been growing more steadily on the internet during the pandemic. A shorthand explanation from the Harvard Business Review tells us that zoom fatigue is real because without the visual breaks we need to refocus, our brains grow tired (Fosslien & Duffy, 2020). Although I agree with this explanation and others I have read, I also suspect that there is a more pervasive and deeper root cause for this phenomenon. Our new virtual environment, or Zoom, might be the scapegoat, but the greater fatigue stems from the unknown, the pervasive pandemic that seems to be threatening life as we’ve been accustomed to living it, often taking us by surprise when we least expect it. With pandemic fatigue, the undertow of life’s new challenges can rise to the surface of workaday life and sneak up on a person without any notice.
My hypothesis for this deeper root cause stems from reflecting about a natural phenomenon that I encountered relatively recently while on a pre-pandemic trip to Reynisfjara, a black sand beach located in southern Iceland. Visitors flock to this location to witness the raw beauty of waves crashing against columns of glistening basalt rock stretching above pitch-black sand. The view of the horizon is punctuated with dramatic rock arches and cliffs rising hundreds of feet out of the ocean. Amid this stark beauty the beach is dotted with bright yellow signs that warn, “Beware of Sneaker Waves.” When I asked about the signage, I learned that technically speaking, a sneaker wave is a disproportionately large coastal wave that can sometimes appear in a series of waves without warning. Many visitors disregard the warning. Every day many find themselves drenched by the powerful incoming surge of ice-cold water. More forebodingly, there are cases of visitors who have underestimated the sheer force of approaching sneaker waves and have died after being swept out to sea.
These powerful waves are called sneakers because they build up over thousands of miles of ocean uninterrupted by any land masses. The surprise attack is that they push up on the beach much farther than one would expect and then explode violently. They are dangerous because they can appear without warning, come out of nowhere, and be so powerful and dangerous as to knock a person off their feet and carry them out to sea. A sneaker wave can appear when least expected, even on incredibly still days. Because they are so unexpected and extreme, visitors are advised to never turn their backs on the ocean and to keep a safe distance of about 100 feet away from the water. I think that something like sneaker waves is at the root of what presents as Zoom fatigue.
As the pandemic carries on, figurative sneaker waves continue to build momentum and threaten to eventually sweep us under if we are not mindful. I observed someone succumb to one just the other day when I spoke to a highly successful student who was feeling the effects of stay-at-home orders and the lack of human interaction. His grades had plummeted, and he felt hopeless. After delivering a brilliant online campus tour on a social media platform, he unexpectedly began to sob. He relayed that in truth, he was feeling like a failure, isolated, and alone. I never would have guessed the force of that sneaker wave given his online persona. As a leader, I hope that I can better recognize the signs of pandemic fatigue and provide support and resources before the sneaker wave explodes. How to do so becomes the challenge.
The ocean, with all its sneaker wave surprises and complexities, reminds me of the different ways many of us are reacting to the change in our circumstances brought about by COVID-19 restrictions. As the pandemic tosses us about, we bob up and down hoping to stay afloat by whatever means necessary. From a leadership perspective, facing sneaker waves head-on is a healthy approach, not a pessimistic one. We must acknowledge the sneaker waves and attempt to mitigate their impact by becoming even more vigilant about the virtual ways we attempt to connect, engage, and support our colleagues. Here are some suggestions and ideas:
In closing, we cannot underestimate the sneaker waves that churn and build below the surface of our daily lives. None of us has experienced a pandemic of this magnitude before. Given all the unknowns ahead, we cannot turn our backs on the sneaker waves. Virtual environments require us to work much harder to make meaningful connections with our colleagues. The best approach is to face the waves, be mindful of their potential danger, and work to cultivate a caring and supportive environment, albeit a virtual one. Rather than fix the Zoom fatigue problem, it is our responsibility as leaders to be aware of and sensitive to the needs that students, staff, faculty, as they navigate the unchartered waters of this pandemic.
Fosslien, L. & Duffy, M. W. (2020, April 29). How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue
Deborah Summers is the associate dean of the College of Communication and Education at California State University, Chico, and a professor of education specializing in literacy development.