Remotely Together: Coping with the New World Through Tech
Observations from our resident psychologist about interacting at a distance... Melanie shares how personality and tech knowledge influence our response to the pandemic, now that we’re all isolated at home.
It hasn’t even been a week since the world turned upside down.
Like most of us, I’ve been checking in with family and friends via technology since the pandemic changed things, maybe permanently. Unlike most of us, I’ve been a remote teleworker for 16 years and have rapidly come to appreciate all the ways I’ve adapted to that long road of working from (aka, being isolated at) home.
All of a sudden, I find myself in the unexpected role of helping colleagues and friends understand how to maintain ties to people through technology.
To be sure, there are lots of ways of coping with the newfound need to reach out and touch someone when you… can’t, exactly.
The way people cope?
Well, that has a lot to do with their personality, as well as their comfort with technology.
Because I’ve spent a great part of my career as a social-cognitive psychologist researching how people communicate with and through technology, it’s easy to see familiar patterns repeating themselves in even this, the most extraordinary of events.
Those who avoid technology are more likely to feel isolated and confused by their sudden physical restriction from the people they care about or briefly encounter. They’re unlikely to think about various technologies - including instant message, email, videoconferencing, phone calls - as simultaneous ways to maintain closeness and connection.
Even when they do use one of these channels effectively, their communication skills are likely to be automatic or comfortable only in that channel, as opposed to flipping back and forth between channels based on the type of message.
For example, conversation with my elderly parents is via phone only, with occasional long-form emails from them only to respond to mine, no matter how brief.
A quick text to check in? Out of the question.
Consumers who are confident with technology are using multiple channels of interaction and quickly adapt to their new social reality.
Consumers who are confident with technology are using multiple channels of interaction and quickly adapt to their new social reality. More than one of my 20- and 30-something colleagues are hosting remote parties on Google Hangouts, already. Of course, these same Confident technology personas find email a relic of the Stone Age, snark at anything other than Google-based document collaboration and are Slacking, tweeting and Instagramming their way through their days.
Even my ‘tweens are rocking their use of tech, barely missing a beat: FaceTiming with their crew on iPads, giving each other a load of grief, as they craft elaborate racetracks in Fortnite Creative Mode.
Oh, if only they could be back in school so my network could be stable again.
And then there are those I call the Optimistic tech consumers: they’re carefully branching into new forms of technology, prompted by the need to stay close to those they care about. Maybe they’ve opened Facetime or Googled to find out about this Whatsapp thing. It’s going to take a bit longer for Optimistics to hit their stride with new forms of interaction, since they aren’t as risk-taking as Confident people.
I’m personally Optimistic, veering toward Confident, and I’ve been continuing my daily dose of videoconferencing (jumping between Zoom and Google Hangouts), Whatsapps, email, Slack, collaborative design and documentation for work. I’ve even ventured back onto Facebook, after a self-imposed break for the last 3 years.
Instagram? No way. I ain’t venturing down that rabbit hole, thankyouverymuch.
Party on Google Hangouts? Never even occurred to me.
Walking three miles on my standup desk treadmill while I videoconference with colleagues in Dublin, Belfast, Philadelphia and Madrid? Same as any other day.
My husband, also Optimistic but leaning Avoidant, is back on Facebook again and has increased his check-in calls to his mom.
However, as his entire company simultaneously adapts to working outside the office, he’s still taking whatever teleconferences they manage to cobble together from his phone. No earphones.
In the living room.
Really? No earphones?
In contrast to my worklife, Slack and Hangouts are stocks he’s considered buying as the market crashes, not essential lifelines to his team. His work has become disjointed, confusing and much more slowly paced.
Connect early and often
As you and yours are learning (or relearning) how to stay connected, I’ll encourage you to reach out more often, more widely.
Yesterday, I Slacked one of my colleagues, just writing, “Hi, how ya doin?” We had a brief exchange and that was that.
Twenty four hours later, she Slacked me back: “Did you need something or just saying hi?”
“Just saying ‘hi’ :-),’ I wrote, “Hi again :-).”
She said I’d just made her day because the only reason she gets Slack messages is when someone needs something.
If ever there was a time to use technology to reach out to people you care about daily, in whatever way you can, it’s now.
This article is part of a mini-series called ‘Everybody's at home’, exploring how we experience our connected homes. Read the next article 'Everyone's home. What's next?' here.