It turns out, meeting fatigue is a real thing.
We’ve all experienced bad conference calls, but some just feel more exhausting than others. I’m not talking meetings that are frustrating because of poor preparation and facilitation or because the discussion has little relevance to your job (See The Ugly Truth About Meetings). I’m talking about the seemingly normal conference calls that leave you feeling undeniably drained. It turns out, there is a scientific reason behind this phenomenon and some simple ways to counter it.
The problem: you’re not hearing everything Bad quality voice connections lead to bad quality meetings. Without getting deep into the technical weeds, the telephone networks and many conference call services use “narrowband” phone signals, which cut off the high and low tones from your voice. This has an impact on our ability to understand what people are saying (a.k.a. intelligibility). Sometimes the impact is obvious where you notably struggle to understand words and phrases. Sometimes it is not so obvious and, subconsciously, your brain is doing the work to fill in the gaps using context from the conversation. Either way, your brain is working overtime, which is why you feel mentally fatigued after these types of calls.
The spectrum of sound Legacy telephone networks - up to 3.3 kHz (at best) AM radio - up to 5 kHz FM radio - up to 15 kHz Television - up to 15 kHz CD audio - up to 20 kHz Fuze HD (Symphony) audio - up to 16 kHz
What am I missing?
- Consonants are critical to determining speech and the important factors for differentiating often reside at a higher frequency than what the telephone network supports.
- 2/3 of the frequencies in which the human ear is most sensitive are beyond the capabilities of the public telephone network 
- Example: Important sounds, like the difference between F and S, happen above 3.3 kHz
Situations where your brain works harder on traditional conference calls
- Higher voices
- People talking over one another
- Words beginning or ending with p and t, f and s, and m and n
Video conferencing adds nonverbal cues to improve communication Effective communication goes beyond just voice. It is frequently quoted that the majority of human communication is nonverbal. The specific amount is a contested issue in scientific circles, but consensus is it lands somewhere between 60%-90% depending on the situation. (2) The important point is that nonverbal gestures, expressions and other cues play a big part in how we communicate with one another. In team collaboration scenarios, video conferencing has been shown to significantly increase productivity, accelerate decision making and improve focus and engagement in group discussions. (3)
Multitasking: A huge threat to meeting effectiveness We’ve all had situations where people on calls are clearly not paying attention. Nothing kills communication more than when someone is distracted. In the current work environment where people are always connected, multitasking during meetings is a major business productivity issue. In fact, we conducted a survey of nearly 2,000 knowledge workers in which 92% of people admitted to multitasking during meetings and 41% admitted to doing it often.(4) Many companies are finding that video conferencing helps reduce multitasking by visually encouraging people to pay attention better than other technologies.
- People frequently multitask, especially on conference calls
- Contrary to popular belief, multitasking has a negative impact on productivity and brain power
- 57% of people admit to multitasking on conference calls vs. only 4% on video calls (4)
- Heavy multitasking can temporarily lower IQ as much as 15 points (5)
- Multitaskers experience 40% lower productivity, take up to 50% longer to accomplish tasks and make up to 50% more errors (6)
- Better quality audio (wideband or HD) on conference calls can improve the effectiveness of meetings and reduce conference call fatigue
- Video conferencing can further improve communication and productivity among distributed people and teams
- Multitasking hurts productivity more than it helps