How COVID-19 is Normalizing Virtual Interaction

In a world of video calls, are we saying goodbye to meaningful engagement?

Sohan Choudhury
 min read

Years of all-nighters. Countless exams, priceless memories, lifelong friends. The college experience is for many a transformative one. A journey from youth to adulthood which culminates in earning a (hopefully useful) degree.

So how’d it go for the class of 2020? I asked a friend who recently graduated:

“Uh yeah so I spent the last 2 months of college stuck at home watching pre-recorded lectures. My fam and I then watched my name on a slideshow during the virtual commencement.”

The class of 2020 has been robbed of an experience of a lifetime. Instead of walking across a stage, pumping their fists in triumph, they watched a chapter of their lives come to a close behind a computer screen. Graduation parties became replaced by disengaging 30-person Zoom calls, and the communities that defined their college experience suddenly felt distant.

The class of 2020 was the first batch of guinea pigs in a social experiment none of us chose to be a part of. COVID-19 has disrupted our ability to interact in-person, forcing us to turn our lives virtual. But as we start to settle into this new norm, how can we continue to engage meaningfully?

What’s changed so far

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Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

The impact of COVID-19 on physical interaction has been immediate and widespread. Here are just a few examples of different areas (beyond graduation celebrations) that have been adversely affected.

  • Conferences have been forced to adapt. Holding large physical events is out of the question, which hurts the value proposition of many conferences. Without the draw of face-to-face interaction or dynamic networking opportunities, conferences have been cancelled, made free online, or have been replaced with video keynotes.
  • Weddings have been upended. For many couples, postponing isn’t an option. Some have gone to great lengths to make the virtual replacement feel special, while others have grappled with the reality of saying “I do” in their living rooms.
  • Social, community, and religious gatherings have transformed. Lively conversations that once filled a room have been replaced by large video chats where meaningful interaction can be difficult.

Fundamentally, it’s hard to stay connected online and easy to feel distant. Staring at rows of faces for hours on end can be mentally draining, and more and more people have been complaining of Zoom fatigue. According to a BBC piece on the matter:

“The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together.”

Simply put, this isn’t how we’re used to interacting with one another. In the case of large video chats, the experience is particularly depersonalizing. Personal connections are hard to foster while others look on awkwardly. Furthermore, it’s especially difficult to naturally meet and connect with new people, which makes creating an inclusive environment for newer members of a community challenging. So far, there’s been a lack of effective solutions to these problems for event organizers.

We often ask ourselves, “when will everything go back to normal?” The answer, however, isn’t so straightforward.

Where we’re headed

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Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

While it can be reassuring to hold out hope, the fact of the matter is that the changes we’ve experienced so far are not temporary. The world will continue to be a very different place post-COVID.

Online interaction will be normalized not as an afterthought to our daily lives, but as a core part of it. A clear indicator of this is the approach that major companies are taking towards work-from-home (WFH). Facebook and Google, for instance, have both extended their WFH policies until 2021. Twitter went even further, announcing that staff would be able to continue working from home permanently.

These companies are quickly making WFH mainstream. While there are clear benefits when it comes to cost-savings, companies will need to work especially hard to preserve culture and build community. On this front, WFH presents a unique challenge. There’s a clear loss of natural bonding moments, as every interaction has to be planned with meeting links.

Conversations often feel forced on video chat platforms, as they don’t mimic how people naturally interact in real life. Just recall, for instance, some of your most memorable encounters with your colleagues — the moments that make you feel at home in the workplace. How many of those moments happened during work-heavy scheduled meetings? How many happened during casual conversations and encounters?

Simply put, the video chat solutions we use are optimized for productivity, not for meaningful engagement.

In addition to the rise in WFH, there’s been a larger shift in how we think of holding in-person events. Traditional challenges to hosting physical events, such as cost, transportation, and accessibility, have been further exacerbated by social distancing guidelines as well as safety concerns. For many gatherings, the default option for the foreseeable future might be to meet online.

As the months of quarantine turn into years of working from home and interacting with one another behind our screens, we’ll need better solutions. Zoom fatigue can’t become the norm. Staring at rows of faces for hours daily isn’t sustainable.

Whether we thrive in this new normal will be determined by our ability to build and harness the next generation of online communication tools. If we find new ways to interact effectively online, the upside is huge. A future with better online engagement could make events more accessible, and could broaden the reach of communities.

The internet age has shown us the wonders of communication at scale. When it comes to interacting online, COVID-19 has made it clear that we’re due for an upgrade.

Looking for a better way to engage online? Zoom not cutting it for your events? Check out Gatherly, a video chat platform built around natural movement and interaction.

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