How to adapt to virtual-first relationships without losing touch

woman remote working on video conference call

Fatigue. Eyestrain. That deadening sensation at the pit of your stomach when you’re asked to spend yet another hour on an interminable video call.

It seems as though few (if any) of us with an internet connection have escaped the claws of technology these past 18 months, and as knowledge-based businesses the world over start to welcome people back to the workplace, we’re left to consider what is gained and what is lost by going virtual-first.

Beyond the obvious, and extraordinary privilege of being able to maintain open channels with loved ones, order in food and entertain ourselves from the confines of our four walls, the many boons of a technologically enabled society are counterbalanced by its many costs. We know, for example, that the interactions we have in person versus online are not “functionally equivalent” or interchangeable with one another. The way in which we relate to a floating head on a screen from the same spot at which we work, rest and play, can never match the rich, nuanced, multisensory experience of travelling to your local coffee shop to hug a friend and sit in a cozy third space together.

We know from research that not only do our minds influence our bodies, but our bodies – and the sensations and information they respond to – also influence our minds (a phenomenon known as embodied cognition). In fact, so interconnected are the two, that everything from our judgement and reasoning to the mental constructs we create around categories and concepts, are shaped by our physical interaction with the world. No wonder, then, that our online exchanges can feel so impoverished and forgettable as compared to those we experience out in the world.

So, what can we do about it? Well, the good news is that with a little concerted effort we can recreate the sensation of being more fully present with each other, even across the divide of the screen. Known as the phenomenon of “telepresence”, when we connect more meaningfully with one another online (for example by asking richer, more open questions and engaging in active listening), the feeling of really “being there” with someone can be sustained for a period of time, as long as other elements (such as a glitchy connection or heightened latency) don’t shatter the illusion.

Other hacks, such as including more of yourself in the frame, so that hand gestures and non-verbal cues can be seen can also help, as can hiding your “self-view” so as to reduce that prickly sense of self-consciousness it so often incurs. When it comes to eye-gaze (another tricky thing to maintain online), we can either approximate “real” eye-gaze by staring down the barrel of the camera (useful when giving talks to create greater emotional connection with the audience) or turn off the camera entirely so as to reduce the sensation of being surveilled, shifting our attention instead to the content and cadence of the conversation. We can also reduce the exhaustion that comes from having to constantly scan for incoming work, distractions and connections, by closing unnecessary apps, browsers and notifications. This particular step is crucial if we want to avoid the discomfort of “continuous partial attention”, that awful sensation of being constantly available and on alert, which can leave us feeling drained, overwhelmed, and unable to fully immerse ourselves in the present moment.

Finally, when it comes to working in a team, it’s important to consider the level of psychological safety required so as to really find your flow. Feeling secure enough to speak up without fear of recrimination, or the threat of negative consequences to your status, self-image or career, is vital if we are to engage in the kind of creative and innovative thinking businesses so desperately need right now. But this quality of safety also requires some dedicated effort. While it may be trickier to establish online than in person, we can draw upon basic tools such as polls, chat functions, emoticons and Q&As to encourage participation, and consciously invite team members to voice their ideas more freely.

Of course, while all of these techniques and tactics can play a vital role in making the virtual more vibrant, when it comes to cultivating and maintaining a sense of connection, relationship and belonging, it’s unlikely we’ll ever replace the power of gathering in person. Our challenge will be in discovering how best to use these tools to embrace the best of both worlds.

Nathalie NahaiAbout the author

Nathalie Nahai, is author of Business Unusual: Values, Uncertainty and the Psychology of Brand Resilience, out now, published by Kogan Page Inspire


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