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Presence 2.0 – Bringing more presence into remote working

“The smell of fresh coffee as I enter the building”, “a friendly smile from a colleague”, “the informal small talk over a meeting by chance in the corridors” – these are some of the things I hear people are missing about going to the office.

In our courses we see many people who are feeling exhausted and hopeless. With burnout on the rise, more and more companies are contacting us to set up wellbeing programmes

But where does this lethargy and fatigue come from?

Of course, it is related to the pandemic and the uncertainty of the duration of the lockdown, but I think there is something deeper going on here. Something is missing.

Pushing ourselves for constant efficiency is exhausting

Recent studies show that there is an acceleration of the trend towards more and more hours spent on screens and less downtime. The time which we thought was idle, e.g. commuting to the office or between meetings, has turned out to be precious. It is a moment to transition from one activity (work) to another one (leisure) and to unwind.

We also lost these transitional moments where we bump into a colleague at the coffee machine and engage in some small talk. The small sentences “How are you”? “How is your sick mother?” “Did your son pass the exams?” have been replaced by endless meetings which are purely based on facts, figures and specific purposes.

Those who are working remotely no longer randomly run into people or have the chance for unintentional conversations, to basically just be human with each other. What happens instead, is that people turn their commuting time into starting their work day earlier and ending it later. To prevent this trend, some companies like Google have installed a virtual commute where the servers are shut down. Others have started to leave meetings open so that people can still randomly talk to each other, just like at the end of an in-person meeting where we don’t immediately go away but we’d turn to our neighbour for a brief chat. Studies show that companies which do virtual meetings without intentions, for example at the end of the week, just for people to share how they are doing and how things are, cope much better with the circumstances.

Even prior to the pandemic, with increasing digitalisation these precious moments of informal conversations were already decreasing, with people focusing on their devices and answering emails from people far away, rather than interacting with the ones who are in the same room or building. But teleworking in the pandemic has accelerated this trend, and in my opinion, it is an important factor contributing to people feeling exhausted and depressed.

Humans need unintentional interaction

Humans have a strong need for socialising and specifically informal, unintentional interaction. According to neuroscientist Rick Hanson, humans have three needs: safety, satisfaction and connection. If one of them is not met for a longer period, we will go into stress mode and risk burning out. The need for connection is particularly important as it the glue of our society and ensures our continuity as a species. When we are amongst people who care about us, the hormone oxytocin is being released in our brain, which provides a feeling of connection and ease. It helps us feel less stressed, more open and creative. Studies show that small talk is the knit for organisations; it is what holds them together, what creates a feeling of community and trust

If we only have intention-directed meetings and no more moments for informal conversations where we are just around people who we appreciate, we will feel depressed and disconnected. A moment of real exchange and some kind words by another person can make your day.

Creating space for small talk

We need to recreate more opportunities in organisation for small talk, so that people feel seen as humans with feelings and needs. We all need to nurture our own need for connection by deliberately creating space for short and simple conversations. And with small talk, I don’t mean asking “how are you?” and not being interested in the answer. I mean a human exchange with a non-intended conversation, with no means to an end. Just being human and listening deeply to each other; resonating with each other’s feelings with no other intention than being curious and open. From this openness, other things can arise, such as creativity and innovation, which can eventually benefit companies and our society. In its initial phase creativity cannot be steered – it needs an unintentional space where ideas and exchanges can unfold

Some ideas on inviting more connection into your life:

  • At the beginning of a virtual meeting, start with some informal conversation, just like you would in a face-to-face meeting when arriving and settling, turning to your neighbour. Ask some personal questions to find out how things are with the other person and listen deeply. You will soon realise that this is time well spent because it makes you understand where this person is coming from. If you know that someone in their family is sick or they experienced a burglary, you will much better understand their reactions in the forthcoming discussion.
  • While background images can be inciting for discussions, it feels more inviting to show your real background as it might bring about questions like: “where did you get that baseball from?”, or “I have the same book - I love it!”. This can help to find common ground, understand more about the other person and create a feeling of connection.
  • If you are the host of a meeting, don’t close it immediately afterwards (you would not be the first to leave a physical meeting either). Instead, leave it open and invite people to stay on the call. You could even put them into random breakout groups where they can exchange in an informal way. You can do the same for virtual breaks.
  • Use any other spontaneous occasion where you meet people to be human with each other. If there is willingness, you could just have a friendly conversation with a stranger in the supermarket or during your walk, offering a smile or a compliment and enjoying the moment of connection\
  • Meet up for virtual lunches or apéros with colleagues or friends and be genuinely present for each other.
  • Practice loving kindness meditations, for example Steve's befriending meditation in 5 steps.

It seems that 2021 will be another year with reduced social contacts. Therefore, it is important to find other ways to meet our need for connection. Our society can only heal and reinvent itself if we turn to one another and ask “how are you today?”. And when we are back together, maybe one positive thing that will come out of this pandemic is realising how much we need real, genuine, human presence...