being more human online

We need to make personal connections online, even if we’re sick of video calls

After my third virtual meeting of the day, I’m ready to heave my laptop out the window. 

If we’ve learned one thing from meeting online, it’s how much we need to make remote connections meaningful. Working remotely demands extra energy. First we must bring the effort to do the job. Then we need additional focus to read social cues through screens and earphones. And we have to manage our own feelings about the difficulties involved. Repeat often for a year, and it’s no wonder we feel burned out and drained from online meetings. If we can create a stronger human connection, virtual meetings can help us do our best despite the challenges.

It’s tempting to blame our frustration on the nature of video calls. But what if building connection online depends more on how we choose to show up?

We need virtual meetings to get our work done. We also need them to help us recharge through meaningful human connections when we can’t meet in real life.

How to make virtual meetings meaningful

Let’s start with our human capacity to care.

Care about yourself, the others present, and the work you’re trying to do together.

The overlap between these 3 things — caring about yourself, the people you’re with, and your common work — creates a base for meaningful connection.

Finding this common ground can use your own personal experience as a guide.

Let’s think about when we’ve felt belonging and connection. Some of our experiences online may have helped us deal with the trauma of separation and a life-threatening virus that we’ve all been through.

We can also learn from others how to build social connection remotely by knowing when to care.

Compassion has a place even in a professional role

One example of how to build social connection remotely comes from a classroom that met virtually during the pandemic. Theater arts teacher Sarah Chaves describes how allowing more personal connection online helped her students manage adversity.

Chaves saw her virtual classroom become a place where she and her students helped each other navigate the trauma they were going through.

In her live classroom, Chaves maintained a polished, businesslike image — hair up, nails done, sensible shoes — a respectable authority. At first she meant to uphold the same standard of privacy in her online classroom. She kept her private life behind personal boundaries, deliberately off-limits.

But the wall between work and private life didn’t hold up online. She noticed very quickly how the switch to virtual classrooms challenged her ideas about what it meant to be professional. Intrusions from family members, illness, and the strain of spent resources could not be ignored. Her ideas about detachment between private and professional life had to evolve. The changes allowed a new kind of effectiveness and engagement with her students.

Let personal boundaries breathe with compassion

The Zoom classroom unavoidably brought students into her home, and she into theirs.  They could see each other’s faces and eyes up close. A view into each other’s living spaces brought more of their personal lives into the classroom.

Being more open about her family life could be fun, Chavez found. Students’ faces lit up as her husband walked by in the background. So she introduced him, and afterward they called out their greetings when he came into view.

Other views into private life were harder to adjust to in the classroom. Web cameras exposed their most vulnerable moments to each other.

Chavez noticed when students where buying food for their families with their own money, caring for siblings, or dealing with despair watching loved ones grow ill and die. She saw “the dark circles under their eyes, chapped lips, unkempt hair.”

Chaves learned to read distress in her students’ faces and recognize the dire hardships many were going through at home.

Sometimes emotions ARE the agenda

Emotional overwhelm is a barrier to functioning — let alone working — for anyone. The need to face the flood of distress these students were struggling with became obvious. Their fear, anxiety, depression and needs for emotional connection couldn’t remain off-limits.

If she wanted to engage them as learners, she also needed to embrace them more fully as human beings. She needed to allow ample time for them to check in, listen, talk and support each other. Her personal rules for emotional detachment had to shift, soften, and even melt away in places. She and the students unavoidably saw each other as people, not just teacher and students.

Topics of self-care became integrated with other material in her lesson plans. Time spent just talking, to grieve losses, witness each other’s struggles and express compassion replaced some lessons altogether. She couldn’t afford to defer material about mental health resources to a special week as in prior years.

“Students were inhaling and exhaling trauma. Together, we allowed one another into our lives and made that breathing a little easier.”

Sarah Chaves

Likewise, the students returned the care her more open presence allowed. At one point she missed several days of class after a miscarriage. When she returned, her students saw the distress on her face, blotchy and red from crying. They feared she was sick with COVID. Chaves decided to explain the real reason for her red eyes and her absence. Being so open made her feel vulnerable.

Hearing about her loss, they filled her virtual room with warmth and condolences, some with hands and arms reaching out to comfort. Their kindness lifted some of her sadness, and allowed her to keep working well as their teacher.

“[O]ur most valuable interactions come from sharing our vulnerability”

We need emotional detachment to function in work and life. But there are times when the work is about creating emotional safety, to be vulnerable and open, for all involved. “Students were inhaling and exhaling trauma. Together, we allowed one another into our lives and made that breathing a little easier,” Chaves noticed.

True, it’s not the job of students to cheer up their teacher. It’s not our job as meeting attendees to take the place of mental health services or to provide therapy. We can’t save the world, or each other, in online meetings.

Even so, we can help each other carry our burdens by being human. Our vulnerability can be our greatest asset when we are dealing with trauma. We can’t ignore when others are experiencing hurt, fear, or overwhelm.

If we balance boundaries with compassion, we may be able to make online sessions work better for us. If we can find ways to be more fully human online, our virtual meetings can become valuable experiences where we navigate extraordinary life situations, without getting lost in them.

How to be more fully human online

Chaves’s story reminds me why I feel so strongly that we make our content easy to use. Making our work useful and easy to read shows we care. Some of my takeaways from her story:

  • Be clear and easy to read
  • Use design to clarify
  • Intend to help
  • Show compassion and empathy
  • Focus on one message
  • Be engaging
  • Develop basic technical skills with your chosen platform, whether print, digital, web or other
  • Open up a little; be vulnerable
  • Respond to the most urgent needs
  • Provide emotional safety

Interacting through a screen takes a lot of energy. That’s why reading ease and care for the user experience is so important if we want people to engage with our online presence.

Combined with human strengths, digital media can become vital channels for the connection we need to manage all this together. And maybe even come out the wiser and better able to help each other heal when we have the chance to do so online.

Being more human — more you — may be the best differentiator

We chafe at having to limit our selves to reach each other through screens. Sometimes we break through the anger, disappointment, and confusion, and we build a bond. This is a huge success. If we can show up in ways that allow us to be open or vulnerable about what we need, a vital connection can form.

People can experience the dose of emotional support they’re hungry for when their online gathering is a safe space to talk about something they’re struggling with. Sometimes that’s what they need most.

We can foster richer and more secure bonds between people on virtual platforms. When the intent is to meet real human needs to feel seen and heard a video meeting or online room can provide a meaningful connection.

Virtual connections can’t fill every relationship need. But let’s remember how they can help us offer each other responsive, more secure emotional connections we need to heal and thrive.


Zoom school’s unexpected upside, Sarah Chaves

Are you making connecting with people online harder than in should be? Corbett Barr

5 Ways to Build Social Presence in Online Courses, from #HumanMOOC, Andy Nobes

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