Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts – if I cannot touch you, are you real? Our brain in a pandemic

I hope you are safe and healthy and have found a way to live well during these strange times. To maintain sanity I’ve been doing a lot of cycling around Swiss lakes, yoga on the shore of the Rhine and walking. It is almost as if the more virtual and distanced my world becomes the more determinedly physical I become to balance it out.

Today’s newsletter is about how interacting virtually is impacting our sense of reality.  Why it matters and what to do about it.

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Interacting virtually is impacting our sense of reality.  Why it matters and what to do about it.

Thanks to COVID19 my world has contracted to my apartment. I gave up my office. Moved the desks and monitors to my flat. And resigned myself to spending a lot of time by myself in front of a screen. My flat is now the perfect co-working space.

Work has remained busy; between delivering a promotional compliance review training workshop, working with a team on an AI audio-bot and supporting a global Medical Information Transformation; my days have been full of exciting activities. My interactions with people are as frequent as ever.  I see faces and hear voices from my screen.  However, the lock-down has made me realize how important physical presence is. I was astonished how viscerally I missed touch: hugging a friend, a parent, a sibling, a partner.

Text messaging has replaced social events. Waves from the garden gate substitute tea with my parents. Thankfully, a close friend joined me for daily table-tennis and socially distanced coffee during the height of the restrictions. Bless him. The daily contact with him and my new addiction to road cycling helped keep me sane.

Surrounded by ghosts – what is reality?

A retired colleague, who lives alone, and went through a strictly enforced lock-down, said «other humans are suddenly like ghosts. I see them.  But I can’t touch them. I can’t get close.  Nobody touches me. How do I know they are  real?  How do they know I am real? How, ultimately,  do I know I am real?»

If I cannot see you, or hear you,  touch you, perhaps you don’t exist? I believe this influences how we interact.

I ran a TC yesterday. Five minutes before the meeting I received four cancellations.  A rare occurrence in face to face meetings. This trend started with mobile phones. Before Mobiles, we would agree a time and date and stick with it. Post Mobiles, we plan ahead and then change the details up until the last minute before the meeting. 

Cancelling by phone or face to face is hard.  Cancelling by text or email is easy.

George Berkeley, an English philosopher, wrote in 1710: The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden… no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them*.

If we need all our senses to experience the reality of an object. My hypothesis is that thanks to our predominantly virtual interactions we are experiencing others as somehow «less real»

The reason I have been thinking about this so much is that I have been speaking with people about their experience of the pandemic.

    Friends,  colleagues and clients say that during the pandemic they have been working harder and for longer hours than when they were in the office.  Frequently face to face meetings were switched to virtual channels. The virtual format means that there are no breaks between meetings.

    One friend, who was in back to back meetings,  reported muting herself, and running to the restroom.  Others have had more early morning or late evening meetings. The rationale: the teams are home, the teams are available. None of this is conscious ill-will, I think it is happening because we are not considering the impact enough.

We are not thinking of the reality of the situation. We are not considering our needs as physical beings working in a virtual space. Nor as humans existing through a pandemic.

This will not change for the foreseeable future.  Remember that your team members are under pressure. Each location and situation is different, every person’s reality is different. The fortunate are in large houses with space and greenery around, others are in small apartments, with small children and enforced restrictions.

So how do you ensure your teams stay effective, efficient, connected as you work in this new virtual world?

  • Check in regularly with your teammates.  Not only on work topics. Understand how they are. Understand how they feel. Remember they may all be on the call with you together, but each of them is sitting at home in their own space. All of this will impact how you work together.  
  • If you sense that there is an issue in your team or you have something challenging to communicate to them use a video call or a phone call. Avoid communicating ca via chat or email, even if it feels easier that way. Your team members will value the fact that you showed up for them face to face, even if it is virtual.
  • Remember that remote working is not synonymous with round the clock availability. Ensure that out of hours meetings are the exception and not the rule.
  • Respect holidays. The pandemic has taken a toll on people’s mental health. A stay-cation may not be your idea of a holiday. But remember humans need breaks, if you don’t want to break them.
  • Review your approach to meetings. Virtual meetings are tiring. Shorten your meetings where possible. Ideally set out ground rules for virtual meetings and effective remote collaboration, and implement across your department or company.
    • Evaluate meeting formats. What is the best format. Does it have to be a virtual meeting. Can you collaborate differently, more effectively, using other channels?
    • Evaluate group sizes. Virtual groups work better with small groups, breakout groups. Consider how you will ensure that all team members are heard. Use open votes, chat or other means.
    • Agenda, this is true for any meeting, have a time plan, have an agenda. Stick to it.
    • For interactive meetings put videos on. It helps retain a sense of group identity.

In summary, treat your team members the way you want to be treated and question the status quo.

Above all, never do anything just because that is how it has always been done,  or because that is how it was implemented at the start of the pandemic.  Review, adapt, improve, evolve.

Working during the pandemic has been a challenge, but we have learned a lot about each other and ourselves. We will be discussing this topic at the upcoming EU DIA Medical Information Meeting, which will be held virtually in November. Please share your experience and thoughts and take part in this short 9 question survey:  take part in the survey here I will likely supplement the survey with interviews. Please let me know if you want to take part. 

If you need an able mind to support you in questioning the status quo, identifying more efficient, more satisfying ways of performing, harmonizing your medical information or medical affairs set-up or are tasked to deliver a transformation in your organisation; please reach out to discuss how I might be able to support you.

Likewise, if you are looking to develop your teams’ or your own core skills and would like to work with a certified coach, then please reach out for an informal conversation.

Wishing you all the best,

Dr. med. Isabelle C. Widmer

*George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710)