How the ‘Zoom era’ is affecting us


Published: 10 Sep 2021

Body Language

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University in California has been looking at how the Zoom era affects body language and cognitive loading.

The team at the lab have examined the psychological consequences of spending hours a day on Zoom and similar platforms.

It makes for fascinating reading. Read the full paper for the scientific findings.


Here are some of their findings in bold. The rest is what I believe is, (and has been) happening in this Zoom Era. How it affects body language and wellbeing, and the latest recommendations to protect yourself.


The proxemics (space/distance) of body language is unnatural on Zoom. That amount of eye contact and that many faces looking at you. It keeps you in a hyper stimulated state, especially for more introverted people or people with anxiety. Also, the closeness of the faces is more like the ‘intimate’ zone of proxemics would be in real life as opposed to social or professional distancing which would be 2-3 steps back. Translation? It’s unnerving for some people to have people who wouldn’t normally get into that space close to them.


Seeing yourself all the time in meetings and conversations on Zoom is unnatural too. You wouldn’t normally walk around with a mirror all day looking at yourself whilst you go about your business!

We tend to be over critical of our appearance and it detracts from what we are trying to get done on Zoom. Solution? Use the video off button from time to time, or use the ‘hide self-view’ option in the settings. Just remember that the rest of the attendees can still see you, just you can’t see you – so you still have to monitor your behaviour which adds to cognitive loading.


We are ‘glued to the spot’ on Zoom, trying to centre ourselves, and make ourselves the right height, which is unnatural. In real life we would be moving around whether seated or standing.

All of those times in real life where we would naturally turn our head to see who is talking and show attention don’t happen on Zoom, as all you can do is look at the person’s screen view box and look ahead. So, we tend to do more ‘affirmation signalling’ like head nodding and small noises like hmm, aha, mm.


Body language is skewed, as we feel we have to make extra faces on Zoom to show and reflect our feelings, some of the faces are over exaggerated such as eyebrow raises and wide eyes. Many people don’t pick up on the subtle differences. It’s the difference between an eyebrow raise that says Really!!! (annoyed/irritated) And, an eyebrow raise that says Really??? (curious/intrigued).


We may also notice signs of:

Stress – forehead rubbing or scratching at the temples/side of forehead

Confusion – scratching in the middle of the forehead

Signs of disagreement – like pinching bridge of the nose.

Touching the central column – throat, heart, guts, private parts (which is often about a person’s values)

Turning away – (dismissive)

Covering ears or scratching behind ears – (had enough/heard enough)


So, what do we know now, that we didn’t know a year or so ago, when Covid 19 first pushed us into this new era?

Well, at the beginning of 2020 in those first few weeks that Covid hit, people thought that you could just transfer a normal working day onto Zoom. We quickly found out that you can’t…..not without affecting people’s wellbeing anyway!

We then went to recommending no more than an hour on Zoom with breaks in between.

The most up to date advice, over a year later, (and I heartily agree with it) is only 30 minutes (40 max). After 30 minutes attention span starts to dwindle. If you have to have longer than thirty minutes on Zoom then do things to protect yourself such as hide self view, video off after 30 minutes, or you can look away for at least 20 metre’s for 20 seconds. This new looking away advice really works.

What if you still have stuff to sort out after 30 minutes you’re thinking? Then you move the conversation onto a ‘back channel’ such as a What’s App group. People can add their thoughts there for others to view as they like, or as ideas come to them. It also is less intense, as people don’t feel put ‘on the spot’ for an immediate answer. They can add thoughts later.

In summary keep it short, and relevant:

If you’re giving a presentation, don’t waste your attendees precious time (30 minutes) talking about who you are and how brilliant you are. Just direct them to your website or profile somewhere, if they want to check you out, they will.

If you’re conducting a meeting make sure people attending have the purpose beforehand – and only have the people that you really need there, to keep cognitive loading down. Just invite who can get the job done. Stick to what you can achieve in 30 minutes – not a long ‘drawn-out’ agenda that goes nowhere.

How to change it up?

Use a Bluetooth headset so you can move with your video/audio off, still hear what’s happening and do other tasks like chop carrots for dinner or fold laundry.

Flip to a phone chat where you can, which minimises your Zoom time in a day, you don’t have to think about how you look and can just chat over a cuppa, or with your Bluetooth headset on.

Get a video camera and tripod/gimble so you don’t have to sit down for all of your Zoom meetings or presentations and be really close to the screen. It’s much more realistic if you are standing and moving around and people really notice the difference. You can also sit down on a stool or chair but from a distance with a video camera long shot, so that you are further away which is more natural, less invasive feeling and less on the cognitive load.

I hope this has helped you. If you have any thoughts or want to let me know how this Zoom era is affecting you, please get in touch. Let’s chat.