Agency | Opinion

Why there really is no substitute for the real thing

As one of our client services team, relationships and emotional connections are my day-to-day. Whether that’s grabbing a coffee with a client to talk about their pain points or sitting with one of the Distinction team to see how a project is coming along.

During something as unpredictable and unfamiliar as a global pandemic and a country-wide lockdown you realise just how key those moments really were. I miss them.

I fell into account management by accident – it wasn’t a career I ever planned on doing. When I was at school, I was always getting marked down on my reports for talking in class and distracting others. I’d set my sights on photography, graphic design and travelling the world – but instead I found myself enjoying speaking with people and building relationships. It took several years in jobs that were more internally facing for me to realise I needed more interaction with people and the outside world. It was what I enjoyed, it came naturally to me and, just as importantly, I was good at it.

I get my energy from those around me and the people I meet. I figured that if ever I were to be locked up in a room on my own it would take its toll on me both mentally and physically pretty quickly. So, when the announcement came that we’d be locked down to our homes, my immediate reaction was how am I going to see people, interact with friends, family, colleagues and clients? How am I going to be able to do what I’m best at?

At Distinction we’ve always had the option to work from home, so we were ready when the official lockdown notice happened. This allowed us to have the time to get our working from home environments fully set up, plan team catch-ups via Microsoft Teams video calls, Zoom meetings and virtual workshops for our clients. We were fortunate as this allowed us to keep in touch with each other daily – attending morning and evening catch-up calls to just check in with each other and talk about anything and everything under the sun.

I was interested to see a study by Microsoft Teams showing the sudden uptake in the use of video since the outbreak began. Their research showed that between 2 and 31 March, the total of Microsoft Teams meetings with video increased from 31% to 43% as working and learning from home inspired people to turn on video two times more than before the outbreak of COVID-19.

Chart showing increase in use of video on Microsoft Teams

I’m a strong believer that sustaining relationships and emotional connections with others is not just about mental wellbeing or maintaining a purpose. It’s about remaining human and appreciating that interactions with other people are truly what keeps us going.  

Now sending that quick email or text to check in with someone doesn’t feel good enough. It just doesn’t do the job. It feels too impersonal and isn’t conducive to truly nurturing a deep and trusting relationship.

We’ve suddenly found ourselves in a place where we FaceTime family or Zoom call our clients probably more than we ever would have before. We’ve chuckled at parents and grandparents getting to grips with WhatsApp video calls. We’ve used all the technology available to us because it’s paramount to keeping relationships in place – the dependence on video calling tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams allows us to maintain that human connection which we’re desperately missing.

But it can’t ever be a substitute for the real thing.

Technology, as progressive as it is, lowers our ability to empathise and engage fully. Looking into the eyes of the other person without that slight pixilation and gauging their honest reactions, their body language or non-verbal clues that help you ‘read the room’ and act quickly just doesn’t happen on a video call.

I saw a wonderful TEDX talk by Dr Fiona Kerr a thought leader in the fields of social cognitive neuroscience (SCN) and human connectivity.

TEDX talk by Dr Fiona Kerr

Dr Kerr highlighted the true importance of human interaction and how it can have a huge effect on reducing stress-levels and increasing dopamine levels – the chemical messenger that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. Giving us our unique human ability to think, plan, stay motived and focused.

Humans are hardwired for and better off interacting face to face. Dr Kerr calls this interpersonal neuro synchronisation. We scan each other’s faces and lock eyes so our brains link and we get that empathetic connection.

But without real life, face to face conversations, those interactions don’t quite translate in the same way over video calls. Our feelings and attitudes mostly come across by non-verbal signals such as facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures and how we sit or stand (arms folded if feeling defensive vs. more open if listening and engaged).

With video calling however, the capacity for social cues is more limited. I’ve found myself on video calls where the other person has carried on typing or continued checking their other screen for emails because this means of communication doesn’t naturally warrant the need to give it your full attention. If I were stood at their desk having the same conversation, it’s much more likely that that person would turnaround and stop what they were doing – giving their full attention to make eye contact and absorb the conversation.  

As this is all still relatively new there’s a lot of learnings to be had, but over time I think we’ll begin to feel resentment towards video calls as being the only way we can interact with one another and in turn lose our human touch. Feelings of isolation and depression can cascade from lack of human touch and eye to eye contact. Video calls, whilst a lifeline for those that cannot be together physically, are no substitute for the real thing.

Already the term 'Zoom Fatigue' has been penned. People are feeling more self-conscious when having to stare at themselves on a large screen or watch themselves present. Catching a glance of our own negative facial expression can lead to more intense emotions than if we were to view a similar facial expression of another. I would recommend hiding the video of your 'self' view on Zoom calls so you can’t see yourself which can be disconcerting and lead to questions about your self-image.

One positive takeaway since the lockdown in March is that I’ve found I speak with clients more frequently and for longer than before. Those calls that were once every other month have turned into fortnightly catch-ups after brewing a fresh mug of coffee.

And those calls that once had strict agendas are now, ‘How’s things?’ ‘What are you up to this week?’ Which as somebody who loves to talk and listen to what’s happening in other’s lives adds another dimension to my role as an Account Manager. I’m not just on the other end of the phone quoting up work or resolving an issue – instead, I’m building a friendship and learning what makes my clients tick. Why it is they do what they do.

Those connections and snippets of engagement enrich how we work together and softens the more difficult conversations when they need to happen. It reminds us that we’re working with other human beings, that we’re not just suppliers but partners who help the day-to-day grind go a little bit smoother and throws a few laughs in for good measure along the way.

We’ve at the point now where it could be months before we have a full office, or social team gathering planned in or even before I can sit at a coffee shop with a client in person. And when that does eventually happen, I’m expecting it to be awkward to say the least. There will likely be some uncertainty around ‘do I shake their hand’, ‘can we hug again’, ‘am I sitting too close’?

My takeaways from all this are to make the most of the increased volume of calls and catch-ups with those around me. To try and book in the odd coffee call even if there isn’t an agenda or purpose so we can have a laugh about this shared remote working experience. Maybe we’ll come away from it all with the desire to talk more. See one another more. Hug more. Laugh more.

We’ll take a moment to appreciate those in our lives (both work and personal) that make up our day, our week, our ‘bubble’.

And at the end of all of this, when we are finally released into what they will call the ‘new normal’, I passionately believe that relationships are what we’ll cherish and prioritise above all else.

If you fancy a virtual coffee and catch up or even a real one when we’re allowed, please get in touch.