‘Can miles truly separate you from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?’ (Richard Bach)
Social distance. It’s not just physical. It’s a feeling. I meet someone close to me, albeit with a 2-metre space in between, and my instinct is to hug, to shake hands, to embrace. There’s a brief, awkward dance as we hesitate, come to a halt, hold the rule. It’s an invisible gulf that separates us, interrupts our contact, keeps us apart. After a moment, we adjust ourselves and the conversation begins to flow. Gradually...a new and different normal emerges. We find a way to bridge the gap. A smile, a gesture, an animated movement, a tone of voice. We start to feel closer again. A metaphorical touch.
Perhaps it’s the same on-screen. We meet a person, a client, a colleague online and, at first, the technology forms a barrier, a boundary and a bridge between us. It feels different to being in the same physical room at the same time and we may feel that similar sense of distance, of strangeness, of desire to connect. Yet, somehow, we do it. Our intrinsic human powers of empathy, imagination and communication create their own paths of relational contact. We tune into voice, expressions, movement and surroundings. Over time, we feel each others’ presence intuitively, and the gap feels smaller.
How have you handled social distance with people at work?
How are you finding online leadership, OD, coaching and training? What are the pros and cons and how are you making it work?
Pav Ponnoosami blogged satirically this week that, during the lockdown, ‘The bedroom has become the boardroom’. As we find ourselves staring at each other on screen, we often see a backdrop, a glimpse of a person’s home life, an insight into the person-beyond-the-role. I find myself intrigued by the different things I see-hear that lay behind: books on the shelf; flowers on the desk; photos on the wall; a child that stumbles in unexpectedly, asking for attention. They all add context, meaning.
Yet is an online relationship a real relationship? I’ve certainly never spent so much time with clients and colleagues on Zoom as I have done during this past few weeks. Is it real? The question itself begs at least two underlying questions: what constitutes an authentic relationship, and what do we mean by real? We could of course apply the same two questions to evaluate encounters and interactions between people in the real world; that is, the world that we think of as real, not just the virtual one.
So, some thoughts. Can an online conversation allow us to know and understand each other better? Yes, although I will know someone better if I see and experience them acting-interacting in a range of different situations and relationships. Can it enable effective task communication? Yes, if both-all parties have access to suitable and stable technologies. Can it enable practical teamwork to achieve a common purpose? Yes, if all have equal access. Can it build friendship or love? What do you think?
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