We’ve heard the questions and asked them ourselves: Is it possible for the virtual event experience to be any richer? What can we do to make remote work less exhausting? What are the best ways to leverage and compensate for virtual meetings?

The research of Michael Platt, a neuroscientist and director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, focuses on the brain’s decision-making processes. My lay person’s summary after learning from Michael over the years is that he finds the science behind our intuition and common sense. We talked recently about the fatigue and frustration many of us have felt since our worlds became so full of virtual experiences.

We started by remembering what the best practices are for in-person interactions, and Michael says those still apply to video conferences and FaceTime. Smile, particularly when others are speaking. Display positive body language that reinforces that you are listening intently. Most importantly, maintain eye contact. These three behaviors communicate that you are engaged.

Following those guidelines is much easier said than done, of course, especially while you’re faced with numerous technological distractions. Why is that person’s camera at such an odd angle? What comments are appearing in the chat panel while I’m talking? Is my audio clear? Who’s responsible for all that background noise and how do we make it stop? Looking, listening, and thinking more throughout an otherwise ordinary meeting is exhausting.

Michael’s hunch is that the virtual distortions we experience are sometimes not worth the convenience of using the technology. For example, I hear much more clearly when I can watch the speaker’s face and they’re talking directly towards me. In a video meeting, those two things often become impossible, especially with multiple people. If I arrange a phone call, however, then I can solely concentrate on the voice because I am not distracted by all the other pieces. Even if you don’t have the same hearing issues I do, Michael recommends mixing in audio-only calls. This tip works particularly well with standing meetings: For every four meetings with your direct reports, try to do three audio-only and one video. When you do connect visually, it will be refreshing to see a face you haven’t seen for some time.

Keep in mind, the ultimate goal is to help your brain do what it needs to do. Pace your communications — especially the virtual ones — to keep fatigue at bay.


Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.