The Zoomification of Non-Essential Workers

photo by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash

The arrival of Covid-19 has fundamentally shifted our relationships.

Along with the loneliness and fear induced by both the virus and the political response to the pandemic, for those deemed non-essential workers, we’re on Zoom more than ever.

We’re using the Zoom video conferencing service for work, and we’re also on there for everything from yoga classes to happy hour to birthday parties.

Of course, there are other video conferencing services. But Zoom is poised to join brands like Kleenex and Xerox and Google: the brands so ubiquitous to our culture the name of the brand becomes synonymous with the service or product they provide.

So here we are, Zooming through our days, and it’s having an effect.

National Geographic, The Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, BBC, and The Wall Street Journal have each recently run articles telling us why Zoom is making us tired. Each of those articles offers various tips and tricks to battle what is being called “Zoom fatigue”.

These are useful modifications. Things like getting up from the desk to drink water and stretch, or making sure to look away from the computer between meetings.

But behavioral modifications aren’t enough.

If we limit the conversations to addressing the symptoms of fatigue through behavioral modification — even beneficial modifications — we miss the opportunity to examine what is being laid bare about the way we work and the way we relate to one another.

Even calling it “Zoom fatigue” shifts the focus and misses the point. The reality is: we’re having all of these Zoom meetings within a system built on ceaseless production and consumerism, now within a global pandemic. We’re either isolated or we have no space from one another. We’re sorting through misinformation and conflicting reports. We’re watching gun sales soar through the roof. We’re watching police hand crowds of predominately white people free masks while sitting together in public parks, while a Black people are violently removed from public transportation by the police for not wearing a mask.

And that’s just it: The problems we had pre-pandemic, due to living in a violent, racialized culture hyper-focused on productivity while treating personal well-being and personal relationships as an afterthought, are magnified by being in a global pandemic. The -isms are just following us into the Zoom rooms.

So it isn’t “Zoom fatigue.” It’s a broken system, laid bare.

We can’t simply blame the technology. Online connections aren’t a replacement for sharing physical space, it’s true. But it’s important to recognize the benefits to virtual connections, including increased accessibility for people unable to be in physical space due to disabilities or other factors, along with the lowered carbon emissions resulting from people staying in one place.

The reality is: this move to online meetings is here to stay. We can blame the tool, or we can learn to use it well.

And as with all tools, when we learn to yield it, we then must decide if we’re going to use it to uphold the current system as it stands, or tear this one down and build something that works for all of us.

We can’t brush past the fact that more online gatherings mean greater accessibility. But accessibility isn’t automatic. If high-speed internet isn’t in your town, or your family can’t afford that bill, or your electronics are out of date, all the conversations about how to avoid “Zoom fatigue” are essentially a moot point and smack of privilege.

Many of the behavioral modifications to avoid or address “Zoom fatigue” are simple embodiment techniques — such as deep breathing or basic stretching. If such strategies don’t also consider what I’ve called the “demineralization of embodiment” — the ways mainstream culture limits the scope of embodiment by ignoring the ways the body is inherently political — then our stretches and breathing techniques won’t provide meaningful help, either.

All of the ways systemic inequality existed before this time of social distancing still exist, and in many ways the gaps are widening. If we’re going to have meaningful conversations about the ways we can improve our experience of being online, we have to have those conversations with a deep recognition of the privileges at play.

When we can focus on the opportunities while remaining aware of the challenges, then we’re in the growing place.

Beyond tips and tricks to make all these virtual meetings less taxing on our physical bodies, we have an opportunity — and with opportunity comes responsibility — to fundamentally shift how we relate to one another.

We’re talking to each other about the symptoms, but we need to be talking to each other about the causes. When we get to the root of what creates all this “Zoom fatigue” — fatigue that existed in different ways well before the pandemic began — then we have a hope of using the tools available to us to create more resilient relationships, in both personal and work settings.

Systemic change happens within the relationships between individuals. We have to examine the systems that hold the individual. Extractive capitalism will keep you thinking it’s just about the amount of water *you* are drinking, the work-life balance *you* are creating. And it’s not that those things don’t matter — they do.

We’re individuals within a deeply interconnected world, and as we navigate the shifts brought on by the increase in virtual gatherings, we have to remember to keep the relationships at the forefront.

1: Remember we’re not all having the same experience.

This experience is different for the person who lives alone than the one who lives with family. It’s different for people with no pre-existing conditions versus people at higher risk. It’s different based on where you land within the prism of the kyriarchy, meaning the way our specific life fits into the various overlapping oppressive systems.

If we can remember that we’re not all having the same experience, we then can open ourselves up to the creative diversity necessary to navigate the changes that we are living through.

2: Practice consent, and mean it.

Asking the question, “Is this a good time?” is beyond mere etiquette. It’s a way of actively affirming that we’re not all having the same experience, and that life within collective trauma means we might not have the same capacity or ability we’re accustomed to. This goes beyond just asking if this is a good time to call for a chat, or a good time to confer about a specific project. We need to make radical changes in what we expect from one another. We need to learn to extend grace to ourselves and each other. And we need to actually ask for permission, rather than ask as a mere formality. If there is no safe way for someone to say that now is not a good time, then we haven’t actually asked.

3: Share physical experiences, even if we can’t share physical space.

Part of what is so exhausting about having most or all of our social interaction happening online, is that we see people on our screens, but we don’t have physical information about the space they’re in. When we’re in the same space with someone, we know the temperature, we know if there are any interesting smells, we are listening to the same background noise. In video conferencing, we don’t have the physical cues that we’re accustomed to.

Starting meetings by asking people to share something simple about their surroundings — as simple as how warm or cool it is — helps each individual practice mindfully attending to the sensations in their bodies, which has been shown to help alleviate the stress, as well as give the group a feeling of coherence that comes when we know what we’re all experiencing.

4: Practice pleasure.

Mindfulness practices and focused breathing are often helpful, although not for everyone. Again: we’re not all having the same experience, and depending on someone’s history of trauma it might not actually be helpful to try and still our thoughts or focus on our breathing.

Instead of focusing on the breath, or on the thoughts, focus on pleasure.

Regularly, for example, at an hour-marker in long Zoom meetings, take a few moments to notice something that gives you pleasure. Perhaps keep something that smells lovely on your desk, or position your computer so you can see something growing — a houseplant, or a window to a tree outside. It can and should be simple. The purpose is simple: allow your attention to move to something that gives you pleasure.

When you practice this exercise in a group, each participant can then share their experience. And so we have a shared experience, even if everyone present is unable to share physical space.

This goes against the grain of our culture that is so rooted in extractive capitalism. When we are facing unknown fears and the resulting hyperarousal of our sympathetic nervous systems, it is very likely we’ll feel a need to fill the time ‘productively’ and push through resistance — our own, or someone else’s.

We are living in a time when we are collectively learning just how interdependent we are. We’re being shown just how vulnerable we are due to the interconnectivity of our lives. This interdependence is also our strength and our resilience.

Relationships require space and slowness. They require care and deliberateness. They need consent and accountability. They flourish within pleasurable experiences.

When we focus on the relationship itself, rather than what we want to get from that relationship — whether its work, or personal — we increase our strength and resiliency. Because just like trees are more resilient in the forest due to the interconnectedness of their roots and mycelial communication, we are more resilient when we remember we are always interconnected and interdependent.

This new way of sharing and communicating is not easy. All of us are doing the best we can within very difficult situations. And yet, humans are incredibly adaptive, and our ability to adapt along with our biological interdependence is the source of our resilience. So, as we navigate this new not-normal, it’s important to remember that we’re being human together, even when we’re only able to gather in virtual spaces.

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