Human Connection in a Virtual World

The future is about people, not machines. Tomorrow’s game changers will be those organisations that empower their people (the workforce of the future) to do work and build innovation with the best knowledge and know-how, not use the most automated, high-tech, production systems.

Creating sustainable experiences is a complex process, requiring a diversity of knowledge and know-how. It’s about optimising our current operations by connecting the dots between people, ideas and data – inside and outside an organisation. It’s also about having the knowledge and know-how readily available, and on demand, to enable people to work better and more efficiently.

Regardless of what we accomplish and accumulate in a lifetime, we are unable to take it with us. In the fast-paced, rapidly-changing, crisis-driven, social-media shared world that we live in today, success and happiness are often defined by the status of what we achieve, and the value of the things that we own. Everywhere we look, we are inundated with the same message: the measure of our self-worth is equivalent to the measure of our material wealth. We are constantly distracted from the truth of the power and fullfilment found in human connection.

“People think being alone makes you lonely, but I don’t think that’s true. Being surrounded by the wrong people is the loneliest thing in the world.”

― Kim Culbertson

Human Connection

Human connection is more than just a way to spend our leisure time or have a little fun – it’s hugely important for our health. We are innately social creatures, hard-wired to seek out a community. In fact, our drive for human connection is so powerful that multiple studies have shown that feeling lonely and isolated is more detrimental to our health than smoking or obesity.

The world’s longest-running study, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has shown over the span of 80 years that a strong sense of community is the most significant factor in living a longer, happier life. Dr. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA showed that social pain, such as when you are ignored by a person whose attention means the most to you, is interpreted by the brain the same way as physical pain. Our bodies react in the same way.

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

So Lonely

No longer considered a marginalised issue suffered by only the elderly or those on the social fringe, the current wave of loneliness sweeping the globe is hitting much closer to home than you might think. As shocking as it may seem, new research shows that loneliness may now be the next biggest public health crises to face the modern world since the rise of obesity and substance abuse. In fact, loneliness, and its associated depression, has become rampant. Studies show that business executives may actually suffer at more than double the rate of the general public as a whole, which is already an astonishing twenty percent. 

This ever-growing loneliness among the hyper successful is not just a result of the social and professional isolation of living in a more global and digitised world, but rather it’s a “lonely at the top” malaise that’s spreading largely due to the sheer emotional exhaustion of business and workplace burnout. Science is now sounding the alarm that there’s a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion. The more exhausted people are, the lonelier they feel. This, of course, is made worse by the global lockdown and the ever-growing trend for a large segment of professionals who now work mobile and remotely.

“Loneliness doesn’t have much to do with where you are.”

– Hugh Hefner

Connection Disconnection

So why is a strong sense of human connection, something so natural and vital, so difficult for us to create? Why do so many of us feel so lonely? For starters, some of us are confused about what connection really means. True connection isn’t what happens when your Bluetooth earbuds recognise your computer. That is communication. Connection is an energy exchange between people who are paying attention to one another. It has the power to deepen the moment, inspire change and build trust. It’s no surprise that human connection can have such a massive impact. After all, think about someone who had a huge effect on your life. Did you like them because they were articulate? Because they had the best resume? Because they had great hair? Most likely it was because you felt they cared about you. Connection takes place the moment we feel that somebody cares about us, so we open up to learning from them.

The other reason we’re unable to connect with others is that many of us are carrying some serious baggage. Emotional baggage interferes with us caring about those we meet. We carry our shyness, our cynicism, our competitiveness, and our pride with us as unconscious defence mechanisms to push people away. When the pandemic is over, one in six workers is projected to continue working from home or co-working at least two days a week, according to a recent survey by economists at Harvard Business School. Another survey of hiring managers by the global freelancing platform Upwork found that one-fifth of the workforce could be entirely remote after the pandemic. We cannot expect that the way we previously engaged to be replicated with just a few tweaks and the right technology. Our social constructs are being stressed because, when virtual connections replace human ones, the human can get lost.

“We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

― Carl Sagan

The Pace of Change

We are redefining workplace terms at a rapid pace. On the job now means “in my living room” for many workers. “Can we meet now?” means jumping on a Zoom meeting. Before COVID, the digital tools we used to communicate were a way to streamline our work and make those connections easier; they weren’t the main event! Now how you show up, and deepen your connections, can firmly establish you as a human being in the digital world.

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky

8 Virtual Team Activities to Build Remote Connections

Solid relationships are crucial to the success of projects. The only thing is, it’s much harder to connect on a human level with people when they exist in two dimensions on our computer screen or mobile device. Working with remote teammates and clients, means we need to work extra hard to make sure we’re interacting in a way that allows us to build genuine, meaningful connections.

Whether your team is big or small, it’s important to focus on team building activities that help virtual relationships thrive and create a sense of connectedness across the organisation. How do we make sure that our communication remains compassionate and empathetic even when it occurs over digital mediums?

  1. Toy Projects

Innovation is critical to every organisation. If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind – particularly in today’s world. Whether it is new products or services, more efficient manufacturing processes, or new marketing and sales channels, assign teams to ‘play’ with a new project for a week or so to inject some creativity and inspiration. Align these projects with real needs in the organisation so team members feel great that they are working on projects with a purpose.

  1. Recognition and Appreciation

Helping teams feel connected, engaged, and aligned is mission critical right now. Employee recognition can be easy and fun. It fosters community and creates team-wide alignment. Rewarding team members with treats, and recognising their achievements builds morale. Think outside the box like gifting movie tickets or professional development such as extra training courses or attending conferences.

  1. Lunch n’ Learn

Whenever someone attends a conference, ask them to present a virtual lunch n’ learn to the rest of the team. The attendee can put together a presentation of what they learned at the conference to present over lunch (not mandatory) so the entire team benefits from the conference and the ideas generated there.

  1. Show n’ Tell

As an icebreaker to a weekly meeting, each team member can show one of their favourite things, and share the accompanying story. This activity allows team members to get to know one another on a more personal basis, and can lead to cohesiveness and feelings of camaraderie.

  1. Weekly Trivia Games

There’s a reason Jeopardy’s been on the air for the last 50-years: people LOVE trivia. Build team culture, one trivia contest at a time. Spark conversations. Celebrate the winners.

  1. Two Truths and a Lie

Two truths and one lie is a classic icebreaker activity. Each team member presents three statements about themselves: two truths and one that is false. The team can then take turns to guess what’s true and which one is the lie. After everyone has guessed, the speaker reveals their lie. To make the game even more fun, add some healthy competition with a points system.

  1. Schedule the Fun

Just because you aren’t close doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Pick a designated time each week to connect in a non-work related way. You can have virtual drinks, share your favourite YouTube video, your latest app or play an online game together. By regularly hosting virtual events, your team can build relationships that will extend into other communications such as, chat platform and email.

  1. Traffic Light (check-in)

Check-ins encourage teams to show up authentically. A check-in gives everyone a chance to speak before getting into the heart of the gathering. It helps people to transition from their previous activity into the meeting.  Ask each person to share whether they are feeling red, orange or green in the current moment. It’s a great way to quickly gauge the emotional temperature of the team. For example. Imagine you’re going to ask an individual to speed up the timeline on a project, when perhaps that person checks-in as red. You might want to consider adjusting your language to account for the way that person has shown up.

Red means you’re overwhelmed, stressed, upset or generally having a tough time

Orange means things aren’t ideal but you’re coping

Green means you’re feeling good about things

You can either have people share only the colour or ask them for a sentence to expand on the colour. Each person names the next person. It’s important to recognise that all feelings are valid and this isn’t a session to fix or address anyone’s colour. However, if someone says red, it’s a great idea to follow up with them afterwards. Let them know you’ve got their back and are there for support.

Work is important, but people connect when they’re not working and the discussion isn’t focused on work. On each call, if you have five minutes to ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ you can build a relationship with someone. This can be a game-changer in knowing your team better and creating a good culture for your company.”

– Gonçalo Hall

Stress Kills

Loneliness changes our thoughts, which changes our brain chemistry. The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted side effects. This includes increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can predict heart death due to its highly negative effects on the body. This increase in cortisol triggers a host of negative physical effects — including a persistent disruption in our natural patterns of sleep. As a result of increased cortisol, sleep is more likely to be interrupted by micro-awakenings. If you don’t sleep, you don’t heal.

Stress is the trash of the modern world, we all generate it but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life.

– Danzae Pace

Let's Get Real

The way we communicate online has left many of us feeling lonelier than ever. We connect with more people, more frequently but quantity is not the same as quality. The key to feeling less lonely is to have deeper connections. Instead of endless Linkedin posts, Facebook threads and Insta pics, we need to spend time talking face-to-face. But who said that needs to be IRL (in-real-life)?

It’s the relationships that fuel a sense of team, not the physical proximity. Since the global pandemic, many teams are further embracing video conferencing. They understand how to use the features and functionality, but they are still a little unsure about how to engage and connect with each other more deeply. There are a lot of creative ways to deepen our connections. We all have access to these ideas. The key takeaway is to stop self-censoring, be a little bit vulnerable. Get comfortable and play with it – there’s always room for fun!

“The old rules of what makes a great team still apply, whether you’re a remote team or not. You can’t build a culture if you don’t have trust, accountability, and mutual respect. The best way to kill a culture is to stop trusting people and stop giving people the respect and the responsibilities they most likely want in their jobs.”

— Tracey Halvorsen


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