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  • Lu Hanessian

Elephants in the Zoom Room

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

When we name them, we can escort them out, and reclaim our space for inclusive wellbeing and authentic engagement. Remote doesn't have to mean disconnected.

We were never built for this. These awkward, simulated eye contact sessions, where, to make it look like we’re looking at each other, we must not look at each other.

“Stare into the black camera hole,” we’re advised by Zoom coaches.

I get it. It’s good advice...if you’re a television anchor. I was a television anchor for 25 years. I know how to look into the black box and talk to a sea of invisible faces. That’s the life of studio work. We get the the countdown, position our bodies, relaxed and upright, confident and credible, and face the camera. We smile at an imagined audience. For split screens, we look ahead, not at our guest who is sitting next to us on set. For satellite shots, we look ahead into the lens, not off to the right or left at the guest’s face.

Otherwise, well, it looks weird to the audience. We feign focus, because optics are (close to) everything in visual media.

And, so ZOOM?

It’s complicated. On the one hand, we've learned volumes about communicating virtually. For example, we've learned to exercise our preferences. Like choosing from an array of backgrounds from Italian villas to Fijian beaches to floor-to-ceiling bookcases (nevermind that parts of us disappear when we gesticulate.) We've learned to speak emoji, raise our virtual hand, huddle in breakouts, take polls, and create word clouds with a group of people in real time.

It didn't take long before we stopped noticing people's ceilings, crooked paintings, cats walking across desks, and the bandwagon effect of turning off cameras during webinars and meetings and classes. We became accustomed to talking to black boxes, bearing a name or static photo, and ignoring that intangible sensation of dysregulation in our nervous system when we can't read cues, gestures, or faces, when communication is not contingent, when we have to guess if someone heard us (or is still there). It may be a learned practice from our collective survival mode, but it's working against us now.

Zoom has become more than a means of communication. It’s now integral to our new workplace culture. Hybrid work is here to stay.

Which brings us to...the elephants. They don't have to stay. They're taking up real estate. And, they won't budge...unless we name them. It's time we reclaim our space. And re-orient ourselves toward inclusive wellbeing, authentic engagement, and shared resilience.

Elephant #1. We've become so used to survival mode, we forgot to switch it off. (Actually, there's no switch.) It has been a long haul these last few years. We are amazingly adaptive creatures. But, living in fight or flight for long periods of time is not how we were built to thrive (or get anything done).

"Too long, too intense, too much" can lead us to shut down, to freeze, and get stuck in traumatic stress states. Our brains have been coding the Zoom room as a kind of low-grade threat to our nervous system. Because we need face-to-face, eye-to-eye communication to read the room, we've been lost in space without all the built-in relational cues to guide us. We've learned to fill in the blanks. But, in chronic states of stress, what tends to fill in the blanks is...fear.

We must practice incremental ways of restoring our peace, settling our bodies, bringing attention to our breath, resourcing ourselves through movement. Gentle, grounded practices. I call this "non-striving thriving."

Elephant #2: We're not the same people as before. (Before a global pandemic created a 'before and after' threshold in our lives.) Several years of pandemic threat, stress, loss, trauma and grief has exacted a toll on us. On our families, communities, at large, at work, and in our teams. It may look like business as usual, but it's not work as usual. Mandating people to return to in-office work? Gallup polls find that 76% of employees are poised to leave their jobs if their companies reduce or eliminate flexible work options. People have changed. Needs have shifted. Values are different.

If we stop to reflect on how we have changed, maybe more in some areas than others, we become increasingly sensitive to change across a vast and varies landscape of people's unique responses to stressors.

Elephant #3. The Zoom boardroom is often the bored room. (And not the 'good' boredom that sparks creativity) We aren't wired for back to back head-and-shoulders conversations in small rectangles inside a screen. We need our facial muscles, expressive eyes, brows and melodic vocal prosody to activate what researcher Stephen Porges calls our "social engagement system" with others to come alive, get inspired, and be creative in our relationships and work.

We need to move, spend time outside, and get sunlight into our faces to reset our biological circadian clock and sleep better. Virtual boardrooms have become bored rooms. There is boredom that sparks creativity - new ideas ignited from seemingly blank spaces - and the boredom that is neurobiologically associated with stress.

Elephant #4. Our fatigue, stress, and social isolation have become barriers to engagement. Hybrid work has made our lives easier. And harder. It's given us freedom and autonomy...and blurred our working and living hours so that we can't tell where one stops and the other takes over. The brain's chemistry changes when we've been disconnected from people for too long, and activates restless energy, agitation, and unexplained feelings of disappointment in us.

How we feel shapes how we show up. Fatigue, stress and isolation affect our capacity and desire for affiliation. We can tend to withdraw in defense, to turn away or turn off. Sometimes, people just don’t want to be seen.

With these elephants in mind (and in the room), how can leaders, managers, business owners, school faculties and students (and everyone with a little blue square icon in their computer dashboard) better navigate this compounding exhaustion, lingering disconnection, and seemingly intractable pre- and post-pandemic disengagement?

1. Know people’s needs. (Know your own.)

To know people's needs, we need to know our own. That sounds like a no-brainer, but in fact, it's a know-brainer. To know our needs, we must be able to know and notice how our brains, bodies, and minds are reacting in different contexts. Leaders who understand the impact of prolonged stress and the need for psychological safety are more receptive and attuned to truly knowing their teams and adapting accordingly.

It begins with the most essential needs we all share - which have been deeply compromised in the past years - the need to feel seen, heard, and known. The need to feel safe. To belong to community. And to know, without a doubt, that even one person has our back.

2. Center connection and social trust. (Begin within.)

Exposure to prolonged stress can slip us into protective, defensive states. States of rigidity and hyper-vigilance. States of overwhelm. States of dissociation, mind-wandering, and disconnection. In these states, connection is not the priority. Safety is. To our brains, safety isn’t the absence of threat, but the presence of connection.

Centering connection on Zoom is a conscious choice. When we trust in our shared neurobiology of connection and innate relational intelligence, we check in with people before assuming they're fine. We make space for people to share how they're arriving instead of presuming they're ready to dive into action.

3. Lead with recognition. (Know people again.)

Teams, and the individuals who comprise them, need recognition now more than ever. Lack of recognition is a key driver of disengagement. But, this is more than getting credit for effort and performance. It's about being known, too. Recognition comes from the Latin “recognoscere” which means "to know again". We’ve changed over the past few years. Most of us haven't deeply acknowledged those changes, let alone the subtleties of how they have altered our needs, how we see the world and each other.

We need to get to know our colleagues again. And they need to get to know us. (We need to get to know us, too.)

4. Engage people, instead of managing them. (Connection over control.)

Remote work has centered flexibility and choice at the same time as it has activated a 'virtual' tension between engagement and management. Between trust and control. Between purposeful work and the fevered push for productivity. Engagement is both process and outcome. Managing people on Zoom is counterintuitive and counter productive.

Humanize online gathering by making meetings meaningful, not because we’d like to, but because our nervous systems, bodies, minds and wellbeing depend in it.

5. Proactively prioritize resilience. (Virtual spaces hold vibrance and vulnerability.)

Zoom afforded us threads of connectivity during a time of painful isolation and "social distancing". We reframed our whole perception of screen-time through new rituals of belonging and social gathering. Resilience is what we cultivated through enduring the shock of collective trauma, and adapting to change we didn't choose.

Virtual spaces can still cultivate safety, foster trust, shared vulnerability, and create an emergent arenas for curiosity, creative collaboration, improv, and vibrant community and team-building. Living and working in our new hybrid world is not a trend; it's a learned resilience practice of awareness, agility, and agency. When we center these practices, we cultivate our mutual resilience.

6. The brain loves novelty. (Except when novelty is a threat.)

Novelty is a natural when our brains are not otherwise on the lookout for grizzly bears. We are intrinsically wired for awe and wonder, curiosity and novelty. Our predictive brain is not a fan of prolonged uncertainty, so in the face of chronic stress, upheaval, and chaos, novelty is off the map.

We can intentionally embrace the element of surprise, even in small doses, through the power of play, empathic connection, and novelty in our virtual interactions. We can incrementally let our guard down and co-create safe space together to debrief, share concerns, and diffuse worries. Before we know it, we're pushing elephants out of the way and mining our creative, collaborative energies.

7. Make gathering matter. (Remote doesn't mean distanced.)

Author Priya Parker says, "The way we gather matters." The we gather virtually matters for being connected, not distanced. When we make gathering matter, we find connection in virtual spaces.

A colleague I know was captivated by a Zoom meeting series in which the company had hatched a creative plan to send a small "mystery box" to every team member every month, to be opened in unison at each virtual gathering, with each box themed to align with the upcoming discussion. The team’s anticipatory joy stretched Zoom’s cramped spaces and unified the group in ways nobody expected.

Once we name the elephants, we can escort them out. We start to notice more space. More possibilities for sharing, connecting, problem-solving and accessing personal resources that enhance our agility, connection, sense of safety, and our capacity for coping and hoping.

If Zoom is the room where it happens, it’s up to each of us to arrange the room for optimal engagement by centering the needs of everyone in it.

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