Keeping up our energy while talking into space

With returning to a hard lockdown in many countries to help control the big surge in coronavirus, working from home continues. Therefore, good habits in connecting and communicating in person with others are crucial for both our well-being and productivity. Have a look at my article from May 2020. It has obviously lost nothing of its topicality.

Let’s start with the positive. Video calls and other communication tools have enabled social connections to flourish across the globe in ways that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. They allow us to build and maintain relationships and collaborate remotely. These communication tools bring us together to learn, to comfort each other and to find creative ideas together. Above all, they can undoubtedly foster a strengthening and peaceful togetherness in us which is so much needed. So imagine, if we didn’t have these tools now?What would our lockdown world look like?

Despite all of the positive effects of digital interfaces, many of us are feeling like we are still not thriving as much as we thought, even though we have digital human-to-human interaction.

Why do we feel so drained?

The sudden shift to completely virtual is overwhelming both for our brains and our bodies. Dr. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, believes because we may feel forced into these calls could be a contributing factor. “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together,” he states.

Zoom now has more than 300 million users, up from 10 million back in December 2019. Microsoft says that video calls in Teams grew 1000% only in March alone. Similar numbers apply to Webex, Go ToMeetings, Google Hangouts (now Google Meet), or any other video-calling platform. They give an impression about what is happening in home offices, in living rooms around the world. COVID-19 has literally shifted our lives into a virtual space, causing an unprecedented explosion of “space talks” that has replaced, not complemented, in-person meetings. How much has your virtual communication increased over COVID-19? 30%, 50% or even more than 80%?

We are social animals by nature and thrive on connecting with each other in person. It’s not surprising that many of us feel drained now. As Petriglieri puts it so well in a Twitter post, “The plausible deniability of each other’s absence makes our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not.” Dissonance is exhausting. Virtual interactions can be especially hard on the brain. On top of that, systems fail, applications don’t work the way we want them to and of course we make mistakes ourselves. It can cause disturbing adrenalin flashes when 20 pairs of eyes stare at you, expecting for everything to go smoothly. They frequently don’t, but be assured, you are still a pro!

This is an opportune time for adopting a growth mindset!

To get a better grip on virtual conferencing over time, we can actively take steps to feel more energetic and connected.

Ideas how to handle our virtual fatigue:

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Technical challenges

  • Limit video calls. Actually, limit the overall number of meetings to a number that is absolutely necessary. Now is the possibility to disrupt the meeting marathons of the physical world and reduce them to a healthy normal.
  • You may only turn on your camera when you join a meeting so others can see you and “know” you’re there.  Turn it off after that and only on again to speak. Try to agree with your other video call participants or team when to keep video on or off.  You don’t want others to think you are not engaged in the call.
  • Turn off the self-view, if you feel stressed seeing yourself on screen.
  • Are you tempted to consistently study participant’s micro-behaviors? Be aware and shift your focus to something else. Forcing to decode so many faces at once is exhausting for the brain.
  • Don’t multitask. You are still in a real conversation.
  • If it’s a meeting that you could do by phone, go for a walk at the same time. “Walking meetings are known to improve creativity, and probably reduce stress as well,” says Claude Normand from the University of Québec.
  • For the newbies around us who give webinars: When conducting webinars, try to stick to one system that you know– or are willing to learn. Each conference system has its pros and cons, including unexpected surprises which can come along with regular software updates you are not even aware of. If you don’t have a technical producer by your side, you should prepare as much as possible beforehand, like inserting links to files in the chat or pre-assigning participants to breakout rooms. Be technically well-equipped with e.g. an external web camera, a second monitor, perhaps a microphone and of course a solid headphone. And put your agenda and important notes in sight.
  • Last but not least: Technical delays also cause stress as they make empathetic and fluent conversations difficult. Compare it with waiting for the starting pistol in a race. There is always somebody who has heard it a millisecond before you did and speeds forwards. Or you have been politely waiting for somebody’s turn and the silence in between also feels awkward. Get used to these interruptions in communication and don’t blame yourself, instead try to relax. Prepare as much as you can and for the rest: Take it easy!
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Connecting and Engagement

We are social animals and it’s hard for us to keep the collective energy up and feel connected while physically being apart from each other. We need to build social bonds in order to work better together.

  • “Spend some time to actually check into people’s well-being,” Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness, told the BBC. “It’s a way to reconnect us with the world, and to maintain trust and reduce fatigue and concern.”  I personally love the words from Steven Hickman, executive director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, “Give yourself an opportunity to feel what it feels like to be in the presence of another.” You can also do some activation exercises before you enter a meeting or after closing one. Propose to your colleagues or clients to do it together. Everybody is grateful for feeling a bit more energized. And it has a bonding effect. You can find many ideas for “mind-brain-body“ check-ins or for Icebreakers on the Internet.
  • Make these personal check-ins a new habit, do not give them up after a while because you think they are no longer needed. They are crucial to feel connected and keep the energy.
  • Take time for breaks in between your calls to allow our brains to switch gears. Do something disruptive which is connected to your physical world. Schedule 50 minutes meetings instead of the traditional 60. That gives you time for a buffer in between.
  • Also plan or call for sufficient breaks during your sessions. They can be short, like 10 minutes, but should be done regularly. I recommend for every hour on video to take a 10-minute break.
  • Meet for virtual coffees, lunch, dinner, yoga, or any other common interest.  They don’t have to be long, just an opportunity to connect with others.

Building up your energy and resilience outside your virtual world

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Whenever possible, “take a pause”, especially when you feel exhausted. Do one step at a time, little steps and little goals. First, take care of yourself and fill up your energy tank and then, only then you might be in the position again to start being creative and make new plans. Here are some ideas to boost your energy level with low-key actions:

  • Go outside, take a walk in the park or go for a run whenever you can. Exercise regularly, especially outside to soak in Vitamin D, and practice what calms and centers you.
  • Consume news consciously. Try putting a timer on your phone to just check-in on news maybe in the morning for 10 minutes and the same in the evening.
  • Set up a work shutdown ritual like cleaning up your (digital) workplace or reviewing your “I did it list” and planning tomorrow’s to-do list at the end of every workday.
  • Bring down your stress level in the evening: Turn-off your devices far ahead of when you go to sleep. It helps the hormone melatonin to switch on in time to calm down for a good sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Find ways to greet people and give them a smile which comes effortlessly across through your eyes – even when wearing a mask.
  • Try to share and give without being asked. Who needs your support right now?
  • Carry out “Random Acts of Kindness”. It will help spread happiness to those around you, and make you feel great, too! That can be as easy as sending a postcard to a good friend instead of a text, helping a child or older person cross the street, or walking a neighbor’s dog.
  • This is a time to be creative, if your energy level allows it: Anything you wanted to learn or try for a long time?
  • “Hunt the good stuff.” Think about three good things that happened to you during the day or about things which you are grateful for. Making this a habit counteracts your negativity bias and enhances optimism, on of the core competencies of resilience. Write down your three grateful statements, aim for doing this every morning to start your day optimistic.
  • Take a new perspective. When things are challenging, how could you look at the situation differently to see the good side of it? Think back: How have you mastered difficult situations in the past? How would a good friend encourage you now, what would he say to you?
  • Connect with your social network and be mindful to surround yourself with people who energize and inspire you.
  • Activate your strengths and apply them to meet your challenges. They are part of your individual resources to unleash your best potential and happiness.

Despite so many calling our changed circumstances “The New Normal” or “A great chance”, most of us are for now deeply traumatized by COVID-19, which rolled over us like a tsunami, smashing the way we used to lead our lives and what was dear to us. This is a time to be compassionate with yourself, meaning being friendly, caring and mindful. Don’t blame yourself for feeling drained, desperate or even hopeless at times. Our world has been turned upside down within weeks, and we need time to adjust, transform our fear and sort out our best alternatives.