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How to Keep People From Dozing Off During Online Meetings

If you present "naked" you will keep your audience either engaged, in stitches or on hand when you're visited by the police. In any event, you'll get your point across.


How to Keep People From Dozing Off During Online Meetings

Research shows that participants are much less engaged in virtual meetings than when gathering in person. There are ways around that.

Online meetings often don’t do enough to keep people involved. ZOHAR LAZAR

By Niina Nurmi, WSJ

Feb. 15, 2024


If you have ever fought off yawns during a video call, don’t be too hard on yourself. Most virtual meetings aren’t stimulating enough to keep people alert.


This isn’t just anecdotal, or something that we intuitively feel. In a study of hundreds of virtual and in-person meetings at two global corporations, we found that lots of people doze off—or find their minds wandering—in online meetings, because the meetings don’t do enough to keep them involved. They are too crowded. They are too long. There is too much lecturing and not enough interaction. So, people sink into drowsiness before long and get much less productive.


Overall, people reported sleepiness levels 28% higher in virtual meetings compared to face-to-face meetings.


Other researchers came to a similar conclusion: Face-to-face discussions activate our brains more, with increased eye contact, facial processing and synchronized neural activity between individuals.


Our research offers strategies to rethink remote meetings, shifting the focus from quantity to quality—an essential step to create a more productive and cognitively healthy work environment.


Here are some ways to make virtual meetings more engaging and cut down on Zoom fatigue:


Give crucial information in advance

In many workplaces, remote meetings have become a way to share information, instead of a place for making decisions or hashing out ideas. The result is tedium: Our research shows that passive participation in a meeting makes people sleepy and leads to a 21% reduction in cognitive performance after the meeting, hurting their efficiency.


One way to avoid boring information dumps is to share the meeting materials beforehand—so people can go over them in advance at their own pace and not just listen to a presentation about them. That helps focus the meeting on interactive discussions rather than time-consuming slideshows and lectures. It also gives participants a chance to reflect on the material beforehand, which can lead to deeper and more collaborative discussions.

Imagine a strategic planning session. Before the meeting, organizers could distribute the previous year’s performance report, a preliminary draft of potential strategies and a set of key discussion questions. Participants could be encouraged to review these materials beforehand and come prepared with observations, questions and suggestions. And that means active, informed participation.


Keep the meetings small

Another way to keep people from being passive bystanders is to keep remote meetings small. Instead of asking everyone to join a meeting just to get information, people can get the optimal engagement and performance by including only the essential personnel. In fact, research has shown that smaller groups appear to be better at collaborating and solving problems, on average, than large ones.


Let’s say a group has a weekly meeting for a product-development project, to track progress, address any issues and plan next steps. The meeting only needs key team members—such as the lead developer and engineer—to give updates. At a critical stage, a representative from upper management or a stakeholder could attend for strategic input. There is no need to crowd the meeting with more people who might not have much to add.

Shorten meetings and take breaks


It’s critical to manage the length and structure of remote meetings to keep them effective. People generally start getting sleepy within 10 minutes, our research shows, and drowsiness increases significantly after 30 minutes.


To keep people engaged, meetings should be brief and dynamic, and involve discussions, so people have a reason to get involved instead of listening passively. Lengthy monologues or reading directly from slides can frustrate people and make their attention drift. Passive listening to lengthy monologues can make people disengaged and sleepy. This lack of participation led to a 19% increase in drowsiness over meetings where active participation was encouraged.


Warn people about multitasking

If people feel like the meeting isn’t relevant to them, they might start checking their email or doing other things, especially if their camera is turned off. When participants in our study felt disengaged—that the meeting content didn’t require their effort—they were 43% more likely to multitask. When participants saw their manager multitasking, they boosted their own multitasking behavior by 30%.


A recent study, meanwhile, showed that extensive media multitasking can increase attention lapses and memory problems. So multitasking has a double-whammy: It makes participants less likely to say anything positive during the meeting, and it makes them less effective in whatever other task they are performing.


The simplest way to avoid this, of course, is just ask people not to multitask. To make it easier to follow that request, try a strategy that we suggested before: Give meetings interactive elements like a chat or breakout-room discussions to encourage active participation and help maintain focus.


Make it easy to give nonverbal cues

Facial expressions and other nonverbal cues play a vital role in delivering feedback during in-person conversations. They show that people are engaged and actively listening, and help them read other people’s thoughts, reactions and intentions. Without those cues, people feel isolated and lose the sense of a shared experience.


So, virtual meetings can be a disaster if people are facing a screen full of black boxes with initials. Our analysis indicates that engagement and alertness levels in meetings decrease by 23% when participants’ cameras are turned off, as opposed to meetings conducted with cameras on.


The best way to counter the problem is to keep their cameras on during virtual meetings, so the speaker can get nonverbal feedback—something that is impossible from black boxes with initials. Likewise, reaction emojis can quickly and nonverbally expressing a feeling, and research shows they can help make up for the lack of cues we use in person. The “raise hand” feature can also be used as a cue, indicating a person’s a desire to speak without interrupting the speaker.


Hide your picture from yourself but not from others

Staring at your own image is distracting and heightens self-consciousness. People become more aware of, and concerned with, their own appearance and actions, leading to increased anxiety and distraction. And that can wreck online meetings, as people’s attention is diverted from the discussion, decreasing their ability to engage effectively.

Turning off the camera might help, but then other people in the meeting can’t get visual cues from the speaker. One solution: Have people hide their own image from themselves—something most virtual-meeting tools allow you to do—so they remain visible to others but don’t get distracted or anxious because of their appearance.


Niina Nurmi is an assistant professor of organizational design and leadership at Aalto University School of Science in Finland. Satu Pakarinen, a leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, contributed to this article. They can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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