Don’t Stress the Zoom Blank Face

Once upon a time it used to be said that the eyes were the window to the soul. That expression sounds rather quaint today because the window into most aspects of our lives is now an LCD display, of varying sizes. How much time do you spend staring into a screen each day?

Clever apps that log how long we’ve spent on our phones always deliver shocking results, but it’s often only half the story – don’t forget all that computer and TV screen time. So here’s a terrifying revelation – a recent study estimates that the average British adult will spend an astonishing 34 years of their life on a screen.  This may not be the most accurate of studies but nevertheless there will be some truth in it.

Screens and Our Changing Behaviour

With the arrival of Covid-19, daily social interaction has become akin to a psychological obstacle course through which we must carefully navigate. As we venture on a simple trip outside our social bubbles our brains are making hundreds and thousands of assumptions about what we should be doing, what others should be doing and often worrying that one or the other is doing too little (or too much) to compensate for the ‘new normal’ state we find ourselves in.

On the flipside, we have all seen our screen time rocketing to new heights, as computers, tablets and phones have rushed in to plug the gaps, not only in our leisure lives but also in our working ones. And aside from allowing a voyeuristic peak into the private lives of our workplace peers (‘oh I’ve got that book…’), the screen is beginning to define our working interactions in new ways that we’re only just starting to appreciate.

Digital Meetings, the New Dynamic

Since the Zoom meeting stormed onto the working agenda, one often voiced observation is just how disengaged attendees often appear. How often do you see a sea of blank faces staring back at you?

We may still be socially interacting in this altered meeting space, but how we interact with a screen and a person are totally different, regardless of whatever ‘action’ is taking place on it. By nature, our interaction with a screen is passive and just because the screen content now has added value, our behaviour isn’t going to automatically change to accommodate its new importance.   Let’s face it, as a species we have only been communicating via screens for a VERY short period of our history.

Being aware of our cultural behaviour is significant at this time and it will take yet more time for us to shift into this new digital aspect of our lives. Lack of screen craft was a common enough problem when it was just a two way interaction, but when there are multiple participants the pressure to act (or not act) accordingly on screen is amplified.

Engaging with a Zoom Audience

Another aspect of all this is when multiple participants in a virtual meeting are split over three screens and the images are so small that forming a meaningful bond with any of them is impossible. As such those chairing the meeting often end up feeling like they’re merely starring in a podcast. Those faring best in this new environment seem to be those who appreciate that this is an entirely new (cultural) way of doing things and the rules have changed significantly.

This new way of doing things isn’t perfect and isn’t the kind of workplace future that many of us would really prefer (despite our early lockdown enthusiasm). Screen meetings are, at this moment, a necessity and only time will tell if they will become the normal way of doing things in the long term. If that is the case then we will inevitably adapt our own behaviour and develop a sense of on screen personality to overcome our current thousand yard screen stare.

Either way, for now please remember that, for the most part, that blank look you are seeing when you are delivering on screen is nothing to do with you!