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Virtual work during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed new and exhausting forms of emotional labor. What, if anything, can we do to change it?

In March 2020, the professional world came to a screeching halt when a global pandemic changed the status quo across all aspects of life, especially workplaces. With COVID-related lockdowns and other preventative restrictions in force, the working world and its entangled labor relations were reborn in a virtual environment, carrying expectations of professional behavior and interaction into an unfamiliar sphere. The increased presence of Zoom and other online communication tools demanded more emotional labor from workers and resulted in greater exhaustion.

As workers accustomed to certain forms of emotional labor in in-person settings transitioned into an unfamiliar online atmosphere, they had to adapt their emotive styles of performing their jobs. While a smile paired with eye contact and a firm handshake was once used to convey professionalism and warmth in face-to-face interactions, physical distance and a computer screen now separated COVID-era coworkers from one another―emoting through it became a challenge. To meet the unspoken expectations of their work environments, workers had to find new ways to express expected presentations of identity and emotion. For instance, the “raise hand” function transformed social dynamics in meetings that would otherwise allow coworkers to signal a desire to speak and enable them to speak in turn. To interject without using this function was soon considered rude and unprofessional. Adapting to these evolving silent cues of professionalism was a constant challenge that caused workers to exert extra labor and subsequently tired them out.

In The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild used the term emotional labor to capture these unspoken or explicit parts of a job not covered by its wage. There is something more to the physical and mental labor―the labor produced while simultaneously encouraging or mandating specific stylistic methods of doing work―that evades recognition yet is essential to a job well done. The style is expected and sometimes enforced but instantaneously made invisible. For the flight attendants Hochschild studied, this something extra while performing assigned duties came in the form of required personal flair and a style she termed the smile, an “emotive style of offering the service [that becomes] part of the service itself.” 

Zoom forces its users to uphold social norms of making eye contact and then express nonverbal communication in exaggeration to ensure the accuracy and success of computer-mediated communication.

A professional smile, friendly demeanor, or positive attitude are all “authentic” emotive expressions that are absorbed into job expectations and become monetized, blurring the line between what is genuinely felt and what is produced at will. Just as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described workers’ alienation from the fruits of their labor, Hochschild argues that in a service-producing economy workers can become estranged from the service they are producing. For lockdown workers navigating their jobs virtually and striving to adapt to new communication styles and digitize the smile, the alienation of their performed emotions from their true feelings offered a new level of emotional labor and fatigue. While a virtual workplace is no longer a novelty, many workers still struggle to understand the effects of online platforms like Zoom on their emotional and professional capacities.

A related aspect of our virtual working habits has brought a new addition to vocabularies: Zoom fatigue. The term captures the phenomenon whereby video conferencing exhausts its user at a faster rate than in-person meetings. A recent study by communications scholar Jeremy N. Bailenson argues that nonverbal overload could explain why Zoom and other video conferencing software may be uniquely fatiguing. Zoom forces its users to uphold social norms of making eye contact and then express nonverbal communication in exaggeration to ensure the accuracy and success of computer-mediated communication. “Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility,” Bailenson suggests, may explain why Zoom fatigue happens. Still, the emotional labor behind these performances of professionalism is not new.

Gender remains a point of differentiation, whether online or in person. Geraldine Fauville and colleagues found that women experience Zoom fatigue and stress at higher levels than men. Unbroken eye contact and an onslaught of difficult-to-interpret nonverbal cues exact a more significant toll on women because, executive coach Naz Beheshti writes, women are “more conscious of the emotional subtext of human interaction.” Drawing on Bailenson’s research, journalist Alisha Gupta writes that the phenomenon known as the hyper gaze disrupts natural social relations by forcing everyone to stare at one another. Additionally, Fauville suggests, people are forced to stare at themselves through a “digital mirror,” which weighs heavily on an already overburdened cognitive load. Nonverbal cues, like sending someone a thumbs up on a Zoom call, weigh heavily on women’s cognitive boundaries, increasing the high levels of emotional labor inherent to women in the workplace.

But because students are constantly being assessed for participation credit, a new level of attentiveness is demanded, and its performance yields yet more labor.

Yet women’s roles in the workforce have always been mediated by gender. In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks states that workers “draw upon gendered codes and scripts as a way to negotiate relationships with bosses and coworkers, to personalize impersonal interactions, or to communicate with courtesy, care, professionalism or authority to clients, students, patients, or customers.” Women in the workplace, Weeks argues, react to gendered expectations of their labor by exemplifying strong literacy and a capacity for emotion. When women use gendered, emotive styles to carry out their duties, they step beyond the wage in a way that makes their work exemplary. Women perpetually face overfull cognitive loads within the gendered workplace as they perform increasing amounts of emotional labor for professional ascension or job fulfillment.

In her short 1975 essay “Wages against Housework,” Silvia Federici argued that “In reality the wage, rather than paying you for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit.” Federici’s construction of the wage as a form of visibility for unseen labor is echoed by the unpaid emotional labor women are doing on Zoom as they constantly interpret and reproduce nonverbal cues.

Looking back to the work of Weeks and Federici, women’s domestic roles as caregivers, mothers, and housekeepers are unwaged and the emotional labor they do at work is also uncompensated. Maintaining the domestic sphere while struggling with the clash of bringing one’s workplace into the home during COVID lockdowns had serious consequences for the American workforce and revealed pre-existing economic exploitation. In 2021, 2.3 million American women left the workforce. Those essential healthcare workers who remained in professional, in-person environments, particularly nursing positions dominated by women, were more affected than their male colleagues: 72 percent of health workers hospitalized with COVID-19 between March and May 2020 were women.

In an academic environment, the dynamics of professionalism hold constant and the same nonverbal overload generates extra emotional labor, producing challenging conditions for professors, students, and graduate instructors. But because students are constantly being assessed for participation credit, a new level of attentiveness is demanded—and its performance yields yet more labor. Both professors and students learned to navigate a new virtual world, use the Zoom platform, and find time to “check the chat” to log all forms of participation. A study at Texas A&M University discovered that most students perceived that their workload had increased during virtual learning and 100 percent of surveyed students reported a lack of motivation.

Like the students at Texas A&M University, I felt the additional load of emotional labor as a student learning during the pandemic. While getting dressed and walking to a lecture hall in the early morning felt like more work than opening my computer and typing responses in the chat, the extra labor took an unseen toll. Monitoring the chat to ensure I did not miss any important messages from my graduate student instructors, who served as online community monitors and IT managers, was incredibly fatiguing. It was hard to stay focused as notifications poured into my personal computer and private messages popped up on my screen. Participation counted differently in the Zoom environment and while I knew how to participate in person, I had to learn the habit online. I became highly attentive to how many times I raised my hand and struggled to engage in the chat while following the discussion to ensure I could contribute vocally and in writing.

As Fauville and colleagues found, nonverbal communication requires more effort and exertion in online environments than when communicating in person. Users need to work harder to send and receive nonverbal signals, Bailenson argues, and both the delivery and reception of these forms of communication can overwhelm one’s cognitive load. To ensure they are correctly received, nonverbal cues must be intentionally generated and often exaggerated, such as dramatically nodding for a few more seconds than usual to signal agreement or staring directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) in an attempt to make direct eye contact. To my own detriment, I developed a repertoire of these nonverbal cues and executed them, hoping to improve my communication and ensure I contributed constructively.

I also struggled to delineate my behavior online from my actions in person. I smiled more and offered thumbs-ups frequently and with enthusiasm, a habit I never held before “Zoom school” became my reality. In doing so, I lost touch with “the authentic thumbs-up.” I could no longer remember what situations used to produce a natural reaction of this nonverbal cue because it now represented, “Yes, I can hear you,” “We can see your screen,” or “I like the idea you shared.” Like Hochschild’s smile, what used to be an effortless response quickly became a tool to demonstrate my attentiveness. My adoption of new ways to smile came at the expense of my energy levels as I suffered from Zoom fatigue—much of this personal exhaustion accumulated from performing exaggerated nonverbal cues and worrying about interpreting others’ signals.

While getting dressed and walking to a lecture hall in the early morning felt like more work than opening my computer and typing responses in the chat, the extra labor took an unseen toll.

The constant reflection of my image and perception of myself exhausted me. Some professors claimed not to care if cameras were on or off, while others found a sea of black screens to be a disrespectful and unfavorable lecturing environment. As a result, I kept my camera on for nearly every virtual class. I had to look at my reflection for hours every day. During the pandemic, I was immensely aware of how I looked. The experience did not breed new insecurities or encourage me to dress differently; it just distracted me. With an overburdened cognitive load and exhausted by emotional labor, I found it hard to focus. My own reflection diverted my attention from the substance of lectures and discussions. Offering my reflection to the classroom and leaving my camera on forced me to sacrifice a part of myself in the repetitive performance of engagement.

Fauville and colleagues found that increased self-evaluation from staring at oneself on screen has harmful and denaturalizing effects. Video conferencing for an extended time has a more significant impact on women than men, and women are more likely to turn attention to themselves in response. The tendency to self-focus when presented with a live reflection of oneself, Bailenson suggests, might prime some women to experience depression. Zoom fatigue and the exhaustion from an excess of emotional labor can have dangerous effects on women, but those who have undergone virtual education for an extended time may be especially vulnerable.

The emotional labor of figuring out how to be a good student while using new norms and nonverbal cues to express my engagement was severe and the constant perception of my reflection was harmful. While video conferencing platforms have undoubtedly transformed workplaces, allowing work-from-home flexibility, reducing commuting times, and encouraging greater accessibility and inclusivity for those with accessibility needs (many challenges remain), one should take a serious look at its effect on the social relations of labor.

Bailenson recommends that cameras be turned off to reduce the amount of close-up eye contact, the pressure to engage with new norms, and the experience of being constantly bombarded with one’s own image. While holding audio-only Zoom meetings and changing the software design to shrink the faces of those “in the room” may be helpful adaptations, we should consider adapting our habits to an online environment or reevaluating them. Why do people need to perform emotional labor? If workers need to utilize the smile to succeed in the workplace, how can that labor be compensated? And, following Federici, if emotional and unseen labor can be compensated, can it be refused?

Authors

Mackenzie Berwick

Mackenzie Berwick is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her academic interests are conflict analysis and political transitions in legal and human rights spaces. Her study of anthropology has offered opportunities to examine communication and human connection in virtual environments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reach her at [email protected].

Cite as

Berwick, Mackenzie. 2023. “Life behind the Screen.” Anthropology News website, January 25, 2023.

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