Microsoft Teams Announce “Together Mode” In A Bid To End “Zoom Fatigue”

As many people continue to work remotely, laptops, phones, and notebooks have allowed them to connect and communicate with their co-workers almost as usual. The ubiquitous video conferencing platform, Zoom, has become the face of the COVID-19 working environment with companies opting for face-to-face virtual time together in lieu of in-person interactions. However, it’s taking its toll on many.

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Whether you call it "Zoom fatigue" or "brain drain," the sensation overwhelms people across the world as they wake up every day to a seemingly endless schedule of virtual calls and meetings. According to psychologists, it's a problem that needs to be addressed.

"When you're on your sixth Zoom or Teams or Skype meeting of the day... you are likely to feel a kind of exhaustion from that screen time that's unlike the exhaustion you'd feel from an hour at the gym," writes Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University. "Even extroverts can feel worn down by the 'high-intensity virtual connecting.'"

What makes video calls so tiring is a combination of the emotional effort to appear interested in the absence of non-verbal cues, an intense focus on what's being said, and sustained eye contact— all of which is tiring droves of people across the world.

However, Microsoft seems to have an answer to the problem.

In an interview, Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, explained that the tech giant had been conducting its own research into this type of fatigue before the global pandemic even hit.

"Researchers from our 'Human Factors Labs' recently set out to understand this phenomenon. Do remote work and video meetings actually tax our brain more than in-person work? The brain science suggests, yes," he said.

The study confirmed that remote collaboration is more challenging and that brainwave patterns linked to stress and overwork were much higher with virtual communication. The tech giant's study also suggests that this kind of fatigue begins about 30-40 minutes into a video meeting. Most surprisingly, researchers concluded that if two people first worked together virtually, working together in person would be much more challenging afterwards.

This month, Microsoft launched its solution to "Zoom fatigue" called Together Mode, which is offered in its Teams business software as part of a new suite of updates.

In Together Mode, Teams uses AI to digitally place someone in a room with up to 49 of their co-workers, by using a shared background. It will look like everyone is in the same place while working remotely, ostensibly creating a VR experience that will reduce pressure to sustain eye contact and perceived interest.

"The Together Mode view is the same for everyone in the meeting and doesn't change, unlike grid views that show participants' videos in different locations on each person's screen and that move the boxes around during the call based on who's speaking," says Mary Czerwinski, a cognitive psychologist at Microsoft. Since a whole area of the brain is devoted to spatial memory, Together Mode's consistency is a "huge" way to reduce the cognitive load of a video call,” she adds.

According to a blog post by Microsoft, in Together Mode, participants will see themselves overlapping spaces - mimicking in-person experiences - and will allow users to "touch" the people around them. "The absence of barriers creates greater social awareness and a sense of a shared journey," the company writes.

There are more features on the way, including a hand-raising tool, an emoji-creating feature, whiteboard, Cortana integration, and transcriptions of meetings.