Reflections on Human Connection in a Disconnected World

Read Maria's personal reflections on connecting with others during Covid times and managing stress - European Solidarity Corps & European Voluntary Service

At first, you’d think that working from home is a privilege. It’s the epitome of comfort, less stress and personal freedom; you can roll out of bed five minutes before work, skip the white collar shirt and stiff dress shoes and opt for comfy pijama bottoms and bunny-eared slippers instead. Not to mention the fact that the daily commute no longer entails long lines of traffic and belligerent honking but a leisurely walk from the bedroom to… the bedroom? 

In many ways working from home still is relatively less stressful and comfortable but what people might not consider is just how much more a work-from-home lifestyle can heighten your anxiety, fuel your stress and disconnect you from others. Even in pre-Covid times. Shocking, I know. 

The benefit of the pre-Covid world was that a break from the four walls of your home wasn’t an endangerment to you or to others. Lockdown has meant that we have become more acquainted with our homes’ nooks and crannies more than we care to admit. Your home has suddenly become a bizarre mix of a home gym, a disheveled workplace, a 24 hour restaurant, a hotel (sans the welcome addition of cleaning staff), and a zone of entertainment. This odd concoction has created a sort of time warp - our usual markers of time have vanished and have left our days feeling as though they’ve put through a blender. Months lurch ahead all while the virus has created its very own clock, turning the wheels of time and compelling us to obey. 

Now, workplace stress has infiltrated our homes, productivity levels are questionable and we’ve been forced to find new means of communication with colleagues - even amid the endless Zoom meetings! The usual chit-chat over a cup of coffee and random office walk-ins have been replaced by endless hours of silent screen-time and an existence in which emails get more travel time than you. Zoom - a buzzword of sorts nowadays - has helped cultivate and sustain a semblance of human connection in a digital world, and our mental and emotional health definitely need this. But this platform hasn’t come without it’s fair share of hiccups…

“How about an icebreaker?!?” This suggestion has become the new digital ‘fingernails on a chalkboard,’ and I don’t know about you but those words will continue to reverberate around my brain long after the pandemic. Positivity is a virtue but the reality is that the digital world makes it harder to connect on a human level with people when they exist in two dimensions on your computer screen. You need to work twice as hard to make sure you’re interacting in a way that allows you to build genuine, meaningful relationships and the consequences of human disconnection and mental exhaustion are even more apparent. But acknowledging this difficulty is a good thing. 

There is no denying that social connection is a fundamental human need and while we might all have different definitions of personal happiness, human connection is natural trigger of happiness. We must acknowledge the fact that remote work and Zoom meetings have become part of the daily routine and we will experience this quarantine lifestyle for a little while longer. But this is where intentionally making the space to fulfil our basic human need for social connection plays an important role - and VSI does it just right. 

Since joining the VSI team we have tested and debunked a variety of video communication platforms, some good, some mediocre, and have landed on a sweet spot - GatherTown. While not perfect and by no means a replacement for face-to-face connection, the platform has fostered an illusion of the fluidity of normal life; allowing you to naturally walk in and out of conversations, bump into others on the way to the ‘office kitchen’ and more importantly, feel connected to your colleagues while working remotely. 

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Teamwork is stronger when there’s social connection. Mutual force can drive the flow and increase the creativity of the team. The je ne sais quoi of the ‘click’ can be pure magic. The more comfortable we feel and willing to be ourselves, and more willing to be open and express disagreement in a way that can be resolved paves the way for a healthy and productive workplace. The fruitful interactions and meaningful discussions, helped along by the small size of the VSI team and the daily 9am ‘no-work talk’ check-ins, are proving invaluable for supporting and strengthening the social bond between us. Even if it is taking a little longer in the virtual world than it would in real life. 

The other welcome addition of social connection in the virtual VSI office is bolstered by the weekly Friday morning coffee breaks. Indulging in the infinite amenities that GatherTown has to offer allows us to connect with those near and far in the VSI and larger SCI community over a cup of coffee and whatever virtual environment takes our fancy at that moment - currently enjoying the luxuries of a rooftop bar in the midst of a concrete jungle! This has afforded me with the opportunity to meet and engage with people from the wider VSI circle that in any normal circumstance would have occurred organically.  

Building deep connections with people is more challenging in the virtual world, but it's not impossible! Physical distance doesn’t have to mean social distance and what we’ve achieved in the virtual VSI office is a testament to that. Sprinkling our mornings with a daily dose of casual conversations and human connection has set the tone for positivity in our age of the New Normal. Working from home has its hidden stressors and antagonisers - and that’s okay, we need to focus on what is causing those stressors and try to mitigate them. But knowing that you have a space to share these issues with colleagues - offline or online - is invaluable. Don’t disconnect from human connection - laughter and positive energy are possible to transmit from screen to screen so if this is going to be our New Normal, let’s make it a positive one!

Maria C.