Our lives have drastically changed on many fronts and we all have adjusting to do. But our social connectedness is at risk these days and we must take steps to preserve it for our own emotional and mental well-being.
Pre-pandemic, my company did a lot of workshops and they were really good, if I do say so myself. Post surveys showed that participants really enjoyed them, learned valuable lessons, gained insight into their own behaviors and had a good time in the process.
The sudden switch to online workshops was not an easy transition since the core of our events was experiential. People didn’t sit through a presentation, but actively participated in activities throughout.
After quite a bit of tinkering, we found ways to engage the audience online and continued to receive really good reviews, but as time has worn on, I’ve noticed my enthusiasm has waned. We can make it great for participants, but facilitating online events is really boring for the facilitators.
We did a live workshop last week with a small group of people and it was pretty amazing. Since March of 2020, we’ve only done one other live event and that was over 8 months ago. While much more work is involved and it’s physically pretty exhausting compared to online events, I felt fantastic on the drive home. Melissa texted me after she arrived home to say that it’s so much better in person.
But we don’t have that option very often anymore. Most organizations are hesitant to gather their staff together in one location and have outside people physically come in. The world has certainly opened up much more than it was, but we are most definitely not back to normal.
So as I look at the very full calendar of upcoming online events, it’s time to figure out how we make this enjoyable for both sides of the equation. Let me be clear, I’m extremely grateful that we have a full calendar, that we were able to keep going through the worst global event experienced in decades and that we were flexible and creative enough to continue to keep people engaged. But it’s not the same type of engagement we had before and my staff and I need to feel great about what we’re doing again.
I tried to pay close attention to what was occurring in the moment at last week’s event, to see if I could identify what makes the difference and I realized that it’s all of the stuff that happens in between the objectives and slides and notes in the presentation. It's the casual and frequently unexpected conversations that blossom organically. It’s not just hearing people laugh but experiencing their laughter that is motivating and rejuvenating. It’s witnessing someone’s vulnerability as they cry a little, grappling with their emotions. You just don’t get any of that online.
Life can be pretty frustrating these days. Shortages continue to plague us on every front, inflation is inhibiting a lot of activities and we’re all experiencing uncertainty about our futures. There are now millions of people who remain largely homebound, working and living remotely, which is a drastic change from just 3 years ago and for which we don’t even know the long-term ramifications yet, trying to figure it out as we go.
There are also millions of people who are fully back out in the world, intermingling with other people, working in their offices again, going out to lunch and happy hours and pursuing public activities on their time off. And I know many who are frequently irritated by those who are not out and about, causing events or meetings to remain virtual, messing up their social plans or hindering their ability to obtain services from childcare to home repairs to vacation plans to in-person shopping.
Even if you’re out and about on a regular basis, it is not the same. A lot of people are more aggressive, less demonstrative of consideration toward others and more determined not to be controlled in any way, a psychological backlash from the effects of Covid. The crankiness I witness at stores and restaurants due to slow service or lack of options is largely due to expecting things to be normal. They aren’t. There’s an incredible shortage of restaurant and retail workers, so staying present and recognizing that it does no good to compare to the old days would help them feel less angry and disappointed. Hopefully this will all diminish, but right now, it’s another glaring reminder that we are not in a state of normalcy.
We are inherently social creatures, so none of this can be considered normal. And as with my work, I think we can assume we will never be back to the normal that existed pre-pandemic. I don’t think we’ve reached a new normal yet, but it’s obvious that things have dramatically changed. Remote work is here to stay for a lot of people and that has a far-reaching ripple effect.
More than 8 million restaurant workers lost their jobs over the last 3 years and as of a year ago, more than 10% of restaurants had permanently closed due to Covid. Setting aside fast-food chains, staff shortages and skyrocketing prices which are keeping many customers away, consider the importance of foot traffic for restaurants that managed to stay afloat. With many physical offices shuttered, remote workers aren’t walking to a local restaurant for breakfast or lunch anymore. What does that mean for an entire industry?
Then there are all of the small businesses that rely on local offices, from printing to shipping to office supplies to the coffee truck that used to sit on the corner. Many small businesses have also cut back spending in order to rebound or due to changes in what they offer. My small business purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of promotional products to hand out at workshops, but I can’t give participants a pen or journal or water bottle with my logo on them through zoom, so haven’t ordered anything for the past three years. Does this make small businesses and their vendors more at risk of failing? Does this mean that only the megacompanies will make it going forward? That’s a significant question because 46.4% of all employees work for small businesses.
Then there’s education, whether child or adult. We’re definitely going in the direction of a remote or hybrid education system and we need to take the lessons learned during the past three years into account before we try to progress further down this lane. The pandemic had devastating impacts on learning but for multiple reasons, not just because of online classrooms. And it’s not just because educators may not have known how to engage students in online learning. It’s also true that students didn’t know how to engage within an online class.
We’re going through a major shift in how we work, live and learn. That means we must be flexible and open to change as the world resettles into something new. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse. It’s either one for someone. But we need to be aware of what’s transpiring in order to respond to what’s important to us, to consider our true values as we make decisions and to understand that we cannot lose our social connections, our social interactions or our social consciousness just because many of us are siloed in our homes. If we work or learn from home, we’re going to have to put in some extra effort to connect with people in person and become much more participatory while on screen. If not, we’re going to see even more of an increase in mental health issues.
Much of the work we’re doing is now focused on this very problem. We’re spending a lot of time and effort trying to support companies in maintaining team cohesion when in fact all of the structures that were in place to enhance it don’t exist anymore. When we don’t see our coworkers in person, we lose all of that stuff that happens in between the work. The casual conversations, the patting of a shoulder, the congratulatory celebrations for someone’s birthday or new grandchild or retirement. The bonding that occurs between people sharing a meal or suffering a loss together doesn’t exist for many workers. That’s true personally for many people now as well. Do you go out with friends as much as you used to? Do you have big family gatherings as frequently? Do you shop at physical stores anymore with friends? When’s the last time you went to a movie theater?
For many of us, life has become two-dimensional. The richness of a 3-D life is important and exhilarating but once it’s flattened to a screen, it’s like staring at a television or a handheld device. It can easily become watching life unfold instead of experiencing it. Again, it’s going to take conscious effort to compensate for some of what we’ve lost. I set out to work on my personal relationships over the past year and returned to going out to lunch, happy hour and concerts with friends on a fairly regular basis. Reconnecting in person made an enormous difference, at least in my personal life, which is now why I realize I’ve got to address this in my professional life as well.
The difference between an online event and a live event, whether personal or professional, is the 3-dimensional interaction that occurs when people are together. A four-year old or teenage grandchild is not talkative on facetime. Many adults feel awkward as they stare at each other on screen and try to think of what to say. It can feel forced or uncomfortable whereas when you’re in person, the conversations transpire organically based on the environment you’re in or simply with time. We don’t have as much to talk about with family or friends now either because we aren’t experiencing anything to share. I sit at my computer all day, almost every day, so when someone asks me what’s new, my mind is blank if I haven’t socialized recently. There’s nothing new because I haven’t done anything – I haven’t had any new experiences. That in itself is boring. But when I’ve been to a concert or tried a new restaurant or visited a museum, I have something to share.
At work, the very same people who ask questions and contribute opinions in a live workshop go silent online. There’s the awkwardness of speaking over other people or having to raise your digital hand like a preschooler that drives many to feel that it’s just not worth the effort. It then falls on the facilitators to try to draw participation out which becomes pretty exhausting after 3 years. It’s easy to slip into a “stop fighting it" mindset.
But we can’t. Whether it’s social or professional, if we’re online we need to start adapting and fully engaging in the experience. We need to figure out how to live a 3-dimensional life on a 2-dimensional platform. We’re just missing out on too much and it's going to harm us in the long run. We can learn a lesson from young people who are always on their devices and suffering the ill effects from a mental health perspective, so perhaps we can also teach them as we learn.
The first thing we can all do is be present. Show up online with the intent to engage and connect, not just sit through it so you can get back to something you were doing before the start. Show interest in what the other person is saying. What can you learn from it? Can you contribute to the topic by sharing your own experiences?
Don’t rely on personal conversations just happening naturally when online. Come prepared with something to talk about. With kids, consider skipping a direct, structured conversation altogether and instead suggest playing an online game together or watching a movie or TV show together remotely. Conversations begin to happen organically as you share an experience instead of feeling forced or timed. Share a meal online and perhaps even cook it together over the screen. Consider that we don’t talk nonstop when we’re at someone’s home for dinner or even at a restaurant. Conversations wax and wane naturally over the course of the event and I think this is the main problem with screen time. We’re trying to be natural, but it’s not natural to have to fill every second of time together with conversation and it feels weird to just stare at someone in silence. We need to intersperse other activities into the situation which is what we do when we’re together in person.
What we have discovered through the many online workshops we’ve conducted over the past few years is that by far, the most enjoyable aspect of the events for participants is breakout rooms. We provide talking points and then split people into small groups of 3 or 4 people and let them talk in private. The result is engaging conversations where people don’t leave the room before they are cut off due to time. And the biggest complaint is that 15 or 20 minutes isn’t long enough. By providing a focal point, they are able to connect and have discussions almost as if they are in a 3-dimensional space. And I think that’s what we need to aim for in general. Real connection and engagement even when online, regardless of the purpose of the gathering.
We can mindfully learn and navigate the world whether it’s live or online by staying aware of our feelings, other people’s needs and accepting that we might have to make adjustments to our behaviors. Things are not the same. But there are as many positives as negatives when it comes right down to it. Many people enjoy the extra time they have by not commuting. Many people thoroughly enjoy the social aspects of returning to a physical workspace. We have options we never dreamed of prior to 2020. We’ve largely eliminated the problems of physical space and time. Technology is rapidly changing to address our new hybrid status and we’ll continue to see innovative solutions to many of our woes. But when it comes to our social interactions, we need to be especially mindful. We all need human connection regardless of form. So take some time to consider how you can best interact with family, friends and coworkers to ensure connection and engagement. Once we solve that problem, we can face whatever else comes up together and that’s when we’re the most effective and successful.
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other great shows like The Daily Meditation Podcast, Everything Everywhere and Movie Therapy. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Our podcast is now available to view on our YouTube Channel, so be sure to follow us there and on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast. Visit our website, amindfulmoment.com to access podcasts, scripts and book recommendations.
A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.