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Three ways to stay fabulously, virtually, connected

Jean Gamester - Toastmasters International

Who could have imagined at the start of 2020 that we would shift so much into the virtual world?  Being face to face seemed so important, yet the pandemic has us spending so much of our time face to screen.  Is this good news, a fabulous “new normal”, or a disaster?

We seem conflicted – according to a KPMG survey last summer, 64% of workers preferred the flexibility of remote working, but over a third felt their ability to collaborate had fallen[i].  All over there are stories of zoom fatigue and studies about the adverse impact of remote working.

My own experience reflects the conflict.  I’ve gone from constantly travelling between client sites to connecting with people from all over the world from my screen.  I’ve loved the connection and the opportunity to be home.  I have also wondered whether I am really getting value from all this time on screen.  Drawing from my experience of leading engaging change in organisations and of being with audiences from the public speaking stage, here are three ways of staying connected that have helped me in the virtual world over the last year.

  1. Greeting to connect
    If we were meeting in the “real world”, we’d arrive in the door, say “Hi”, move chairs around, put coats on stands. We’d chat about the weather, the latest events on the grapevine and what’s happening in the news.  All this may seem trivial but it’s really a subtle process of connection, of taking the social temperature.  It allows us to open up, to be with each other, ready to listen actively and talk connectedly.

When we are meeting remotely, we need this greeting space even more.  Without it, we are straight into the action with no warm-up of our voices and of our relationships with each other.  We have the discomfort and disconnection of bypassing greetings.  One thing I’ve started to do is to build in warm up time into key meetings. In some cases, we’re opening the virtual doors fifteen minutes early for people to arrive and chat. Then, warmed up and with each other, we start at the formal start time, we are ready to get into the action.

  1. Seeing and being seen
    When we’re in a room with each other, we don’t just take in the words that people say, we are dancing with all sorts of verbal and nonverbal cues.  These help us to see what is really going on, whether it’s our turn to speak, how people might respond to us.  As someone who was brought up never to interrupt and to wait until last when others have finished speaking, I’ve had to overcome that programming in order to contribute effectively.  I’ve learned how to use physical cues like leaning forward, making eye contact with the meeting Chair, in extreme cases raising my hand. At the most extreme, I do interrupt and stand my ground when interrupted, even as I seek to stay in positive relationship with those around me.   When face to face, I’m likely to notice when some voices are dominating and to draw in those who are being left silent.

In the virtual world, I seek to have my video on all the time, and encourage others to do so too.  This way, we can see those facial expressions, those burning to speak, those ready to move on and we can respond to them.  When I’m chairing, I am looking out for everyone to have a voice, just as I would when I am in the room with others.  And actually, the advantage of having all those faces on screen is that you are actually seeing everyone straight on, rather than twisting and turning to see everyone in a crammed meeting room. Silver linings emerging from clouds.

  1. Really being present
    When we’re not in the same physical space as each other, it is easy to allow distractions to take us even further away. Rather than making eye contact and really being here with our fellow meeting friends, sometimes our eyes and attention wander.  Do your eyes want to dart about checking on emails, messengers or unpredictable children and pets?  Maybe is it just me with the multiplicity of the three screens, the phone on my desk and my gorgeous dog Betsy who could launch at any minute.  If we are not getting the value from the time online, is it because we are not giving the value of our full presence?

I’m learning to close down everything except the people on the screen and any documents we are sharing together.  I turn the phone face down and the sound off. If I start to get distracted, I slow my breathing down, relax my shoulders and get curious about what is going on in the screen in front of me.  I’ll wonder to myself, what are they thinking?  What’s the big picture of this, the implications, the gaps, the opportunities?  If I had to play this back to them, what would I say, how could I summarise it?  How could I help someone else connect with it?  Who else might have a perspective to contribute but hasn’t been heard? We can accept the unpredictable and adapt as it arises.  By really being present in this way, we offer more and deepen the quality of our presence.

Connection is the key
The key to all of this is connection.  We don’t need to feel the fatigue of being distractedly stuck to a screen, of feeling we are losing out by being far apart.  We just need to find new ways to connect.  Let’s take the time; to greet, to see each other, to be seen, to be here, in the present, right here, right now.  I find that when I do this, when I am really in the moment with you, however virtually, I’m energised.   I’m looking forward to meeting you in a virtual room sometime, somewhere!

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