Humanity is a social species — yet the ongoing coronavirus pandemic requires that we reduce physical contact. In earlier centuries, this would have implied significant social isolation. But living in the 21st century, modern technology allows us to move our interactions to the virtual world. In fact, organizations around the world, including giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, have all responded to the coronavirus pandemic by asking employees to stay at home and work virtually instead. While major international conferences are being turned into virtual gatherings and “online only” events, and people may be faced with weeks of virtual-only work, it is important to consider the nature of virtual interactions and how they can be leveraged effectively during these trying times.
The Efficiency Versus Social Connection Trade-Off
Virtual interactions, especially in business contexts, typically serve a narrowly defined purpose — to efficiently allow people who are not in the same location to communicate with each other regarding a business matter. The constraints and norms around virtual interactions are quite different from those defining in-person meetings. For example, a virtual meeting scheduled promptly for an hour has little leeway or tolerance for non-essential communication like small talk. Even when attendees engage in socializing, they might be wary of not breaching into “meeting time.” Thus, one problem of virtual meetings is that they often focus on efficiency and neglect the social connection component that is more natural in meetings that occur in-person. A critical aspect of interpersonal interactions is to build rapport with others and demonstrate social connectedness. However, norms around virtual interactions have done little to address the trade-off between efficiency and social connection.
Here are a few actionable suggestions based on our work for effective virtual interactions as we begin social distancing in the face of the coronavirus pandemic:
- Online meetings: As your schedule of physical meetings has emptied for the coming weeks, be proactive in setting up online meetings with your work colleagues. Instead of canceling meetings and conferences, make them virtual.
- Video rather than voice-only meetings: Employ video calls instead of voice-only phone calls whenever possible. Seeing face-to-face during your conversation conveys important nuances that will otherwise be lost. In meetings with multiple people, encourage everyone to leave their camera on, especially when others have turned theirs on.
- Schedule time for socializing within your meeting: You can ease people’s anxiety around efficiency in virtual meetings by explicitly scheduling time for socializing. For example, spending the first five or 10 minutes of an hour-long meeting on socializing is a way to move away from meetings that are focused on pure efficiency. This is relatively easy to do in small meetings between people who know each other well. In larger meetings, it is incumbent on the leader to break the ice a little, perhaps by allocating time on the agenda and sharing personal thoughts and asking other participants to share their thoughts on topics that are on their mind but not directly dictated by the business agenda. Many platforms, including Zoom, also allow meeting organizers to create smaller rooms for breakout sessions that enable closer connections among a smaller number of participants.
- Virtual happy hours: You can leverage technologies such as virtual reality to create a virtual environment where people can come together in a social (rather than business) setting to have a shared virtual experience. Having social experiences in virtual setting is important — it can make people more comfortable about creating and maintaining social relationships through virtual interactions.
- Reach out to have casual chats: When you need a break, reach out to a friend online and go on a virtual coffee date. Existing norms discourage us from having unplanned, casual conversations in virtual environments. People may be less likely to reach out virtually for the sole purpose of having casual conversations. But think of this as the virtual equivalent of walking down the hall and saying hi to a colleague. Reaching out to colleagues during work time to have a virtual coffee date where you spend the time in a virtual meeting to casually chat like you would at your physical office is critical for maintaining those social relationships.
It takes conscious effort to take full advantage of the possibilities offered by our modern virtual technologies, and old habits die slowly. But as the novel coronavirus forces us to move our physical meetings online in an accelerated fashion, one possibility is that our habits will change, and businesses will continue to keep more of their activities online instead of engaging in physical meetings and travel. This would not only entail significant cost savings but also make our lives greener. Virtual connectedness will never be the same as face-to-face physical contact, but setting our norms more intentionally to manage the efficiency/social connectedness trade-off will enable us to better leverage virtual technologies at a time of physical distancing.