Technology is Keeping Us Connected While Physically Apart

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, Contributor

Virtual happy hour, knitting circles, book clubs and birthday parties.

As government leaders urge everyone stay home and remain physically apart until at least April 30 to limit spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), people are finding unique ways to stay socially connected to family, friends and classmates.

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This sudden interest in connecting digitally, combined with most offices moving to remote work and schools transitioning to online lessons, has resulted in an uptick in the number of virtual meetings. Estimates show apps for virtual meetings have been downloaded more than 50 million times since people were urged to stay home in mid-March. Technology companies have responded with resources to help remote workforces stay connected and productive.

“It’s important to create more opportunities for the joy we get when we’re connecting with others [in person].”

—Brooke Guttenberg Wachtler, Psy.D., founder and president, BEW Consulting & Training LLC

For instance, managers may hold a daily virtual meeting to help employees feel connected rather than sending multiple emails throughout the day, suggests Brooke Guttenberg Wachtler, Psy.D., founder and president of BEW Consulting & Training LLC in New York City. “It’s more personal than an email and it’s a nice break during the day.”

Remote Technology Helps People Connect

Increasingly, employees are finding virtual meetings aren’t confined to just the workplace. Many people are seeking creative ways to use the video technology they’ve relied on at work to stay socially connected while physically apart. Given many states have closed non-essential businesses and government officials are urging the public to curtail interactions with people outside of their homes, connection is needed now more than ever. “It’s important to create more opportunities for the joy we get when we’re connecting with others [in person],” Wachtler says.

“We’re all trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and doing the things we normally do, like seeing people.”

—Trina Bockus, founder, Trina Bockus Life Coaching

The ability to see coworkers and friends while quarantined can have a profound impact on improving our mood, experts say. “We’re all trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and doing the things we normally do, like seeing people,” says Trina Bockus, founder of Trina Bockus Life Coaching in Chicago.

Actually being with friends and colleagues—being able to look them in the eye and see them smile—is essential to happiness. “We get higher oxytocin levels if we can see someone’s face,” says Tracey Adams, PhD., founder of ThriveOn Seminars in Portland, Oregon. “If you’re only meeting via audio, you’re going to get distracted and you won’t feel the benefits of being connected.” Doctors at the Stanford School of Medicine found that our bodies release more oxytocin when we meet face to face, giving us a feeling of overall happiness. For now, Adams says, we will need to rely on virtual face-to-face meetings to achieve that happiness.

Remote Technologies Encourage Interaction

Yet, these online activities—whether for work or social enjoyment—can’t be a one-way street. For these online activities to be successful, participants need to be able to speak to each other, not just listen to someone leading the group, explains Jason Womack, instructor of leadership studies at Commanders’ Professional Development School in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Womack, for instance, has adapted his monthly in-person “book and beer” series to a weekly online event. Unlike a book club where everyone reads the same book and discusses it, Womack invites people to gather online and share the name of a book they’ve read, one thing they learned from that book, and how they continue to use that lesson today. It’s the same model Womack uses when he conducts these monthly meet-ups in person. “The outcome is people get to look at each other eye to eye and feel connected,” he says. They hopefully come away with a book recommendation or two, as well.

Executive coach Jeanne Esti has been sharing a virtual meal with friends and family in Italy every weekend since the Italian government imposed a national quarantine on March 9. Friends in Milan set a place for Esti at their dinner table and put an iPad where she would typically sit so she can virtually join the conversation. “I had breakfast, they had lunch,” says Esti, principal at Compagna Enterprises, LLC. She also shared a virtual meal with her cousins in Naples and even took a virtual cooking class with them. “We are trying to do everything to stay connected,” she says.

There are plenty of options to play games online, as well. David Klos, a high school senior at Oakdale High School in Frederick, Maryland, encouraged his friends to move their weekly Dungeons and Dragons game to a virtual platform while their school is closed. But, rather than seeing each other’s faces, they are looking at a shared a game board, which Klos admits can make the game a bit more challenging to play.

“There’s lot of show and tell of what we’re working on and what new yarn we have. Everyone oohs and aahs.”

—Jodi Womack, discussing her weekly online knitting group

Meanwhile, Jodi Womack—who’s married to Jason Womack—helped the BookEnds BookStore Knitting Group in Ojai, California, move its weekly knitting circle online, much like her husband’s weekly book and beer event. Most members are women, ages 60 to 70, who are in a higher risk group for the virus and might be feeling more isolated as they physically separate to protect themselves from the virus, Womack says. Knitting circles are visual so having video is essential to the group’s success. “There’s lot of show and tell of what we’re working on and what new yarn we have,” she says. “Everyone oohs and aahs.”

Don’t Overcommit to Online Activities

Experts warn that it’s important to not over schedule yourself with online events. “There are so many online things that people are doing, it’s almost too much,” Bockus says. Make sure you pick things that matter to you and that you can commit to attending each week. Otherwise, you might find yourself stressed out trying to keep up with work, family, and online events.

“Now is the time people should be doubling down on things they have always wanted to do, whether it’s journaling, books you want to read, or things you want to learn,” Jason Womack says. “All of a sudden, we have these opportunities.”