Most of us are several weeks and several dozen (or hundred) Zoom calls into this crisis. We've all had time to adjust our behavior and our tech, but even after a fair bit of practice, it's still really hard to feel genuinely connected over video.
There's good reason for that, according to Google researcher Zachary Yorke. In a recent Google blog post, he explained how the short delays inherent in remote meeting tools, as well as our limited ability to read body language cues at a distance, combine with human psychology to make it hard to feel really connected remotely.
It's good to know the problem isn't you. But his explanation of the inherent challenges of videoconferencing also raises a depressing question: Are we doomed to feel disconnected until we can connect with our teams and loved ones in person again?
How to host a digital gathering that genuinely connects people
No, insists Priya Parker, a professional facilitator who has literally written a book about how to design meaningful gatherings (you can read more about her offline tips here). On the TED Ideas blog, Parker insisted that "Turning [meetings] virtual may not be as bad as you'd think" and that done right they can even outshine traditional, in-person gatherings.
In the long post, she walks readers step-by-step through how to host virtual meetings and conferences that actually connect participants. It's well worth a read in full, but here are a few of her tips:
Clarify your purpose. Do you want to boost sales for vendors at your event? Then maybe a digital marketplace is the way to go. Looking to foster community? Then try a virtual game night. You can't think through the right format if you're not clear on what you're trying to accomplish, Parker points out.
Don't ignore "the room." The physical environment of an in-person event sends important signals to participants (you get a different vibe in a club than a sedate conference ballroom). Be equally intentional about your virtual space. Have participants "place their cameras in front of spots that have meaning for them, or that add beauty or color to the many frames everyone else will be looking at," Parker advises.
Find a good host. "A good host is a deft traffic cop, especially for online gatherings that are clunkier by nature. A good host orients her guests to the gathering's purpose, and connects, protects, and equalizes her guests. Be strong where you need to be but chill in unexpected ways," explains Parker.
Create an opening ritual. Don't open cold but instead warm up participants by having them share a beloved object and explain its significance, for example.
Send digital gifts. You can't offer your guests a goodie bag, but you can send them a relevant podcast, subscription, or app to try.
Be chill about interruptions. It's not just OK but actively good if someone's kid or dog bursts in, according to Parker. It reminds us all of the real human beings beyond the image onscreen.
Acknowledge the weirdness, together. "Don't pretend that this isn't strange. But don't retreat, either. In times of isolation, we need each other more than ever," she says.
Check out Parker's nearly hourlong TED video on the subject of staying connected while apart for tons more advice.