As the Zoom-ification of Planet Earth transformed communication while the great pandemic, COVID-19, entrenched itself in human life, one of numerous revelations took hold: There are many aspects of meeting face-to-face we missed, and some we didn’t. But when is it most important to be in the same room with someone else for work, networking, family, friends, and romantic partnerships? How do we make the best use of Zoom and other digital platforms? We talk with experts, including Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom and psychologist Sara Algoe, at UNC Chapel Hill, to update your before-times communication habits and optimize for our new hybrid reality.
People Need People: Relationships Matter
“Relationships are so important,” says Professor Algoe. She addresses the full spectrum of human connections, including new acquaintances and everyday encounters, to help us understand what goes right in social interactions. Well beyond pleasantries, social interactions have a bearing on life and death.
A wealth of studies show we are hard-wired to be social to survive and thrive physically and mentally.
MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab reported that face-to-face interactions within the workplace can radically improve relationships and the functioning of an organization through intimacy, empathy, attentive listening, body language, fewer opportunities for miscommunication, and more.
Yet, even before the pandemic, America was experiencing what Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and others have called a loneliness epidemic and a public health emergency marked by stress, high heart rates, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, sleep disturbances, dementia, and higher mortality risk.
Social Interaction, Covid, and The Zoom-ification of America
Then came the pandemic. On the one hand, some of those who lived with others during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders continued to flourish. As Stanford University Professor Michael J. Rosenfeld describes, partnered adults can experience positive relationship effects in the face of an external threat through increased solidarity and resilient communication. Disasters can sometimes, paradoxically, improve social relationships.
However, stay-at-home orders led to crippling loneliness for others. And not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Japan, for example, appointed a Minister of Loneliness in 2021. The most susceptible to loneliness are adolescents, young adults, people who live alone, and the elderly.
The antidote? In large part, building positive relationships and social support, even via online connections.
Surprise! Connecting Online Can Be Good For Your Health
Not all online activity is created equal: social media trolling, doom scrolling, compulsive online shopping, and excessive news consumption amplified emotional distress during the pandemic.
On the other hand, research conducted by UCLA psychology professor Jaana Juvonen and colleagues showed that during stay-at-home order, connecting electronically via meaningful social exchanges facilitated a sense of connectedness and support. It isn’t about being online vs. not. It’s about being social vs. non-social.
The Pew Research Center reported that experiences with COVID-19 varied for Americans of different ages, with the majority of adults under 50 saying the internet was essential to them during the coronavirus outbreak. But people of all ages participated in virtual parties, holiday family gatherings, live-streamed events, online fitness activities, FaceTime romances, digital staff meetings, and more.
What have we learned from virtual communication during the pandemic that can help us moving forward? Below are lessons that we can apply both in person and in the digital space.
Share A Laugh
“One thing that we’ve been seeing in our data is that shared laughter actually is a really nice signal that people seem to feel more connected with the other person when they laugh about the same thing at the same time. I like to call it a mind meld,” says Algoe adding that this holds true for romantic and platonic relationships.
“Participants say they feel more similar to other people when they laugh together. It is a really nice predictor of future relationship outcomes…shared laughter seems to be really powerful.”
“The way that people perceive kindness or thoughtfulness or relationship potential is when people express gratitude to one another,” says Algoe. “People pick up on the fact that you’re the kind of person who notices other people and the contributions that they’re making.”
She adds that there is evidence that expressions of gratitude from a boss to a subordinate and peer to peer are very powerful. “Feeling like you’re a valued member of the team and that you’re headed in the right direction or that you’re in a workplace where you could stick around because people really value you and your contributions. You have fun when you’re there, and it’s not a toxic workplace.”
“Making eye contact is really important to be able to really have empathy or simulate other people’s experiences, including their positive emotions. The old training to look someone in the eye when you shake their hand, the data really does show this. “It is very hard to make eye contact through Zoom. It’s easy to get distracted looking at yourself instead of being present and really focused on the other person,” says Algoe.
Indeed research highlights the impact of gaze during videoconferences. Look at the web camera, not the screen, when possible.
Replicate Or Continue Little (Watercooler) Moments
“In the workplace, there is value in these moments between people in which all you have is a little bit of time before a meeting to make a connection with someone, or in the hallway, as you’re walking past saying, ‘Oh yeah, thanks by the way, for that thing that you did for the meeting.’ Or, ‘Great job,’” says Algoe. “Those little moments are the glue of workplaces in the same way that they can be the glue of close romantic relationships.”
Relationship-building is key to improving team outcomes at work and building personal relationships. In ordinary conversation, people talk over each other, which can get chaotic in a large group. For videoconferences, divide into smaller breakout rooms if it’s a big group. Build rapport by allowing a few minutes for each team member to talk casually about things other than business before getting to the task.
“If you’re really focused on connection rather than just paying attention to the meeting, it’s sometimes nice to send a personal message directly to someone in the chat to say, ‘Hey, nice to see your face on here. I haven’t seen you for a while.’ “
Try One-On-One Videoconferencing
“To our surprise, we found that you can spend time online with people and feel close to them. But not with a thousand Facebook friends,” says Harvard Psychiatry Professor Robert Waldinger. But you could have one-on-one time and feel close to someone online. It’s different than taking a walk together – that is so much more alive and vibrant. But a lot can be gained from being together virtually as well.”
At minimum, “Having your camera on turns out to have a massive impact on how efficient and engaged the rest of the meeting think you are,” says Bloom, adding that if you don’t want to show your background, use the blurring feature, sit against a wall, or upload an image behind you.
When Face-To-Face Really Matters
Affectionate (But Appropriate!) Touch
“We have some evidence that affectionate touch is a good indicator,” says Algoe adding that she means a pat on the arm, a high five, or a hug. “In this current era, of course, we have to be really careful. But those little things can be signals that things are already going right.”
Disclosing Sensitive or Personal Information
“Self-disclosure is classic in interpersonal relationships literature. But it has to be appropriate to the situation,” says Algoe. The challenge is many of us don’t feel comfortable being intimate on Zoom.
“There’s a sense of, you don’t know who’s listening, you can’t tell who may be in the room around the corner or if you’re being recorded. I’ve heard this from many people,” says Bloom. “There are also sensitive things. Having difficult, personal conversations. If somebody says they’re having problems with mental health, or they’ve got a health issue, or someone is bullying them, or they’ve been sexually harassed, or you’re thinking of laying them off…these are not conversations that people really feel comfortable doing on video calls.”
Creating a Positive Work Culture
“There are two massive upsides why some firms are doing fully remote: You save on office space, which is a lot of cash…and you also can hire globally. But there are some enormous downsides,” says Bloom. “It’s much harder to create a culture – however people connect – like over lunch. It’s much harder to mentor new starters and to train people. It’s far harder to be innovative.” He adds to be careful what you wish for if it’s to work fully remote. It may mean your job can be done anywhere, and potentially much cheaper offshore.
He recommends going hybrid. “You don’t need to come in five days a week,” says Bloom. “The classic hybrid schedule is now in the office Tuesday through Thursday, lots of meetings, events, bonding time, socializing time, networking time. And then, Monday and Friday, you work from home.”
Having a Company Retreat
“Even in fully remote companies, they still end up meeting. They just meet less frequently,” says Bloom. “It’s not perfect. You’re more connected if you’re in the office every day. But it is extremely hard to properly build bonds for people if it’s entirely remote and you never physically meet.”
Bonding With Your Boss and Winning a Promotion
Bloom and his team did a randomized control trial where some worked almost entirely remotely while others came into work daily. “The fully remote people actually were 13% more productive…but their promotion rates were down almost 50%. So, if you are in a team and want to get ahead, it almost certainly makes sense to try and come in,” says Bloom. “But if you are the only one coming in, it won’t do you any good because your manager is working from home.”
Align your in-office schedule to your boss’s in-office schedule, be engaged and visible on remote days, and ask your boss the best way to stay in communication with them.
Escape Your Cramped Apartment
“The age group most keen to come into the office is in their twenties. And the reason is relatively easy to understand,” says Bloom sharing that mentoring, socializing, and getting out of a cramped apartment with multiple roommates is a vital draw to heading into an office.
It’s Not Either-Or
Meeting face-to-face is still incredibly important, but gathering virtually can also strengthen social bonds.
A “Do You Need To Meet In Person Chart” helps factor emotional and other complexities.
There are a range of ways we communicate in the modern world, including texts, phone, videoconferencing, and in person. “As you add more cues and ability to read people’s emotions with their expressions, you’re able to pick up more nonverbal cues, adding more channels of communication,” says Algoe. “It should lead to more opportunity for closer connection.”
In-person communication is often ideal for close connection, given the myriad of non-verbal cues and the opportunity for greater privacy. However, in-person and digital communication need not be viewed as competitors. By being mindful of what each mode can achieve, we can employ both to broaden and deepen our personal and professional relationships.