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Video calls without the burnout

The "pandacam" solution

Published onDec 10, 2020
Video calls without the burnout

With the ongoing pandemic, it can be hard to feed our craving to be with others and socialize. With hours and hours of the remote workday taking place on video calls, it’s no wonder people are complaining of “Zoom burnout.” But video is still one of the richest sources of digital contact we can get. It lets us see people’s facial expressions, gestures, and surroundings. It lets us hear emotion in their voices. So how can we socialize on video calls without getting even more exhausted?

Enter the “pandacam.” Since the beginning of the pandemic it’s been my go-to way of hanging out with friends I miss. It’s particularly good at soothing anxiety and loneliness through what some have called “ambient sociability”—a feeling of lightweight socializing, like just being in the same room with someone. In fact, it suits that purpose better than social media (which have become a lot more like 24/7 news channels, complete with shouting and ads).

The pandacam approach follows two of the “scout laws” about technology I highlighted in Keep Calm and Log On:

Control of my digital and media life should be mine.


I talk to different people in my life in different ways. It should be up to me to decide who I want to talk to, how, and when.

Most of the technologies we use daily give us some wiggle room in how we can use them. That’s one secret to their success: they’re open to multiple uses. Since the pandemic started I have used video calls not just for work, but also to attend conferences, have heart-to-heart chats, see a doctor, participate in dance classes, and even sit in on an auction of a farm in Amish country.

Here’s the trick: We have choices. We don’t have to sit right up at the camera and give the person on the other end our full attention. We don’t have to talk the whole time we’re on. My hunch is that’s what’s exhausting people about video calls: we’re called on to talk and we feel pressured to visibly react or “perform” certain roles (good student, productive employee, lively friend at birthday party). We feel self-conscious about how we’re presenting our bodies (at least from the waist up) and the parts of our homes people can see in the background (leading to ubiquitous fake beach backgrounds). Then there’s the parts of regular human interaction these technologies don’t support very well, like making eye contact or taking turns without interrupting each other—glitches which irritate and frustrate us. Keeping track of all this is a lot of tiring work! It’s work we didn’t have to do before we were on camera all day.

But again: there’s nothing about the technology itself that demands we do this. It’s our social norms—which we’re always in the process of negotiating—that demand this constant attention. When we just want to hang out and be social, we can agree on different norms for video calls.

Here’s what I do, and invite others to do, on pandacams:

  1. Send an invite and a video call link to a bunch of friends in a private channel (not public on social media, lest trolls show up to ruin things).

  2. Set the expectation of lightweight social contact by saying “if you happen to be free right now I’ll have the pandacam on while I (cook, do crafts, eat lunch, work, exercise, etc). Stop by and say hi/come do your (cooking, crafts, etc) too!”

  3. Don’t feel bad if only a few people, or nobody, shows up! It’s a spur-of-the-moment thing. If I want more people to show up, I set the time and send out the invite in advance.

  4. Maybe tidy up a little, but mostly trust that the people I’ve invited know me and won’t judge me, and figure the camera won’t pick up every little detail.

  5. Make sure I have a good solid stand for my camera, then…

  6. put the camera somewhere where it can pick up the “scene” around me, not just my face. On top of the fridge worked pretty well for cooking. If I’m working while I have the camera on, it helps to have the camera to the side of me and/or have the other person’s video off my screen; it can be really distracting to always have someone in your peripheral vision looking like they’re turning towards you to ask a question.

  7. Start the video call and go about my business!

  8. Maybe mute if I’m making a lot of loud clattering sounds (including typing or washing dishes), or need to take a phone call or bathroom break in the middle. I might also close my webcam cover or turn off my video stream.

  9. If I need to wander away for a while but I want to see if any stragglers show up, I will sometimes point my camera at a paper note (low-tech!) saying when I’ll be back.

My family did a pandacam for Thanksgiving. Family members wandered in and out of the call while they cooked or ate. From time to time conversations would start, but we didn’t talk nonstop. The people who seemed happiest with how it went came in with the expectation it would be casual while we were cooking. Relatives who wanted to sit down and talk to the camera were more likely to sign off sooner (remember, it’s tiring!) But some of us who kept the cameras running while we cooked stuck with it for close to four hours!

We had one distant cousin, who we don’t see that often at family events, give us a tour of his new house. Another cousin in another town showed off his woodworking. And my aunt and uncle introduced their new dog. Normally, just being based at one person’s house, all that wouldn’t have been possible—we had relatives calling in from all over the US and even Mexico. So this made for a pretty special event. It went so well that my aunt Amy, who often hosts our in-person gatherings, has asked to do it again for Christmas.

The trick is to keep it casual. Don’t sweat the social expectations. Trying to choreograph an intricate dance of people doing certain things at certain times, making sure everyone speaks up, etc. just re-introduces the stress of workday video calls. Don’t ask too much of people, and don’t get offended if they don’t engage with you as intensively as you’d like. For a more engaged connection, invite someone to a one-on-one chat.

I hope the pandacam solution can bring your family together when they can’t physically come together for safety reasons, and that it brings you some warm holiday cheer!

One more question: why “pandacam”? It’s actually not because of the pandemic! It was what we called a video link we set up when I was working at ThoughtWorks, between one of our teams in Canada and another in Brazil. (Obviously, the name originally came from the live cameras set up at zoos so people can see particular critters within their walls—the first one likely live-streamed the activities of the pandas at the Smithsonian Zoo.) For much of the workday, we’d have a camera pointing at the big table in each office where most of our team worked.

Our clients were intrigued. Did we have the camera on so we could make sure the team in Brazil was doing their work? they asked. (We were kind of horrified by this assumption of surveillance. Of course, they could see us too!) No, we responded—the Brazil team had spent time with us in Canada at the beginning of the project, and we had really enjoyed hanging out with them; we missed them! A live camera was a really good way to quickly get someone’s attention if they couldn’t be raised over email, or see whether someone was available for a task or not. We’d say hi in the morning, have our standup meeting together on camera, and say goodbye at the end of the day. It kept things friendlier than just issuing written requests for people to do things. Most of the time we were just sitting at our desks, but those periodic check-ins were nice.

Would I recommend that every workplace have a pandacam? Heck no. Like I said, our relationship with the other team was very friendly, and it was more or less mutual. We also had the bulk of our teams in two offices; the pandacam didn’t follow us home. With everyone working from home right now, there’s a lot more risk of invading people’s privacy, either accidentally or on purpose. And our social norms for work in late monopoly capitalism bring with them power dynamics where workers are already under surveillance, and stakes like losing your job or being judged unfit for promotion are high— that’s where a lot of stress about needing to perform for video calls comes from. There may be other workplaces that would benefit from a pandacam, but it’s something that should be discussed with everyone who is asked to participate, and workers need to have the right to opt out.

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