both here, and there

Staying connected. Emotionally. Online.

The hybrid reality is here to stay

A few weeks ago, I attended a beautiful wedding. As I always do, I wept through the ceremony, when the gorgeous bride and groom, shining with joy, entered a new phase of their lives. 

I was sitting on my bed, watching the whole thing on zoom.

After more than a year of online social and professional interactions, we’ve gotten used to participating in meaningful and emotional events through zoom, be it celebrations of joy, conferences, family dinners and unfortunately even mourning.

But now, as the world is slowly opening up again, we have a new way of connecting: Hybrid. We can be both here, and there. Together and distant at the same time. We can come together – yes, even in-person – with a group of people, and communicate synchronously with a much larger community. We can engage with our networks, learn, co-create meaning and build deep personal and professional relationships with those who are physically close to us and those who are far away, on the other side of the screen. 

The hybrid reality is here to stay. Even when international traveling will be fully and easily permitted, we will not give up the advantages of being able to connect across different time zones and geographies, and of saving travel time and resources by continuing to work remotely. Whether all participants join the meeting online, or some are located in the same room, we love the efficiency and the unlimited possibilities that online meetings provide us.

However, we are still far from unlocking the potential of this new way for emotional and social connectedness. Most of the time, we still think of online meetings as a straightforward solution to a technical problem: if we cannot meet face to face, let’s move our meeting to zoom. The result? Usually we are focused, efficient and get the work done.

But what about conversations that need to happen below the neck? How can we add excitement when engaging new donors and partners, the trust when developing cooperation among distant and diverse? communities and the willingness to be open and vulnerable when working through tough challenges? 

Video calls silence most of the humming and buzzing that happen around the actual meeting, where a lot of the relationship-building happens: There is no chit-chatting by the coffee machine, no interjections of “Oh”s and spontaneously exclaiming: “yes, that’s right!” to show agreement, no giggling when someone says a joke or a sarcastic comment. We cannot breathe together when a participant says something powerful or moving, or show our surprise by uttering “Oh my God.” Most of all, we cannot turn our eyes to someone and make them feel heard by simply looking directly at them. We’ve lost so much of our ability to communicate simple messages such as: I am paying attention, I care, I am here for you. So how can we still create emotional connectedness and trust in online gatherings? 

  • Use music as much as you can: before the meeting formally begins, during breaks and while people are asked to do individual work. Don’t just choose the music you like. Ask participants to send you their favorite songs and create a joint playlist.
  • Play. Going back to (the new) normal does not mean we shouldn’t stay playful. Keep using ice-breakers, especially those that have people moving. Throw an imaginary ball at each other, pass an angry cat through the screen, or just get up and dance. Warm up with being silly before immersing into serious stuff. 
  • Name the losses. Talk about the fact that you cannot use body language for communicating. We all feel less competent in online social interactions. Naming this gap will recognize the developmental edge that we all need to work on.
  • Make the implicit explicit. In person we communicate our emotions with body language and facial expressions. Getting the same effect online requires explicitly stating them in words. It may seem awkward at the beginning, but it will increase levels of trust. 
  • This is a joint experiment. Finding the right way to convey connectedness is a joint learning process. Search together for ways to create deep and meaningful communications. If everyone is in a quiet environment, try to leave all mics unmuted to let the giggling and “mm-hhmming” back into the conversation. 
  • If you are truly hybrid, with some people participating in person and some online, make sure that you do not just have top notch technology but also structure the session in a way that combines both forms of participation. As Rae Ringel and Maya Bernstein note, hybrid meetings are not a problem but an opportunity. Seize the opportunity. Have facilitators and meeting leaders in the room and online. Level the playing field by alternating speaking between the zoom and the room. 
  • Remember the corridor. Checking in with a meeting participant who seems troubled is easy to do when you walk out of the room and ask casually if everything is ok. It is impossible to do after everyone presses the “leave meeting” button. Create your own corridor by writing or calling so you can collect both the spoken and unspoken messages that were in the room.

Teaching at a plenary session of the Masa Leadership and Impact Center last week, I posed a question to the group: what is leadership? “Empathy!” threw in one participant into the microphone from Tel Aviv; “Communications” added another on the screen from Ramat Gan; “Engaging the other” chimed in a participant who was with me in the room overlooking the beautiful old city of Jerusalem. We were building together a community of people mobilizing for change in the Jewish world. Together, even though we were apart, keeping the COVID guidelines of limiting the number of people in one space.

“I want you all to know that you are much more than just a rectangle to me,” a fellow participant from the other side of the world wrote during an online facilitation training of the Adaptive Leadership Network, referencing Zoom. As we move into this new hybrid phase of the post pandemic life, we should continue to cultivate the precious product of this last difficult year. With it, we will deepen and expand our relationships with communities and professionals, no matter how distant they are. 

Ronit Heyd is a social change expert who is helping leaders and organizations from the public and nonprofit sectors address Israel’s most complex social challenges.She is a strategy consultant and Adaptive Leadership teacher who has been experimenting this year with creating strong holding environments for online transformative processes. Ronit lives in Jerusalem with her husband, three children, two cats and (currently) four chickens and can be reached at Ronitheyd@gmail.com.