Staying Closer While We’re Apart

Matt Wallace

Principal, HSSE Regional Leader

All words have meaning. As a result, subtle changes in the words we use can significantly change the messages we send. While social distancing and physical distancing may appear to mean the same thing for many of us in practice (i.e. keeping at least 1.5 m or 6 ft from others), the difference is substantial in psychological terms.

This shift in language, which became more evident recently when the World Health Organization (WHO) changed the term ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’ as a key measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, signals that we need to sit up and take notice. Put simply, we need to remain physically distant if someone coughs or sneezes, while also remaining socially connected with colleagues and clients.

Staying socially connected is critical because humans, whether extroverted or introverted, are inherently social creatures. Although there is debate about the origins of our need for social connection, it has been suggested that our desire to be part of a group stemmed from our survival instincts. If part of a group, we were more likely to be successful in hunting prey, gathering food and avoiding danger.

While the impetus of our tendency to seek and maintain social connectedness may have been to address basic physical needs, these connections continue to underpin our psychological and emotional health too. Maintaining social connection with others is a key factor in building resilience – and that’s what we need, acutely, when we’re faced with uncertainty.

While various restrictions and lockdowns are requiring many of us to work remotely, you don’t need to look far to find advice on how to connect. Most of this advice points to technology as the vehicle to achieve and maintain connection. At Golder, the majority of our people are using videoconferencing as a means of collaborating and communicating with far-flung clients and colleagues, but also as a practical substitute for workplace interactions.

However, any vehicle needs a driver (or at least a complex algorithm) to ensure that the vehicle is used effectively and efficiently. We are the drivers of this technology, and I’d like to share some of the driving tips that I find useful.

  1. Some people can feel lonely even if they’re not actually alone. As with all social interactions, we need both breadth and depth. It is great to host large forums on video-conferencing platforms, but it is equally important to maintain the deeper connections you have with your close circle of workplace friends, such as your mentor, the people you would share a coffee with, have lunch with, or those you feel comfortable confiding in.
  2. Pick up the phone or headset before sending an email or pinging someone with an instant message. There is no doubt that written messages have a place and are great for communicating to groups. But when it comes to one-on-one interactions, there’s little substitute for verbal or facial cues and clues. Busy workers may only skim-read an email, and humans are prone to misinterpreting written language, especially if there’s the slightest ambiguity. I am sure we have all experienced an email being misunderstood, even if it includes an appropriate emoji. Intonation and verbal prompts help to contextualise a spoken message, and facial expressions offer even richer information. And, of course, there’s the benefit of immediate feedback and conversation. Verbal communication also increases empathy and engenders a greater sense of trust. As well, psychological research has identified that face-to-face contact triggers parts of our nervous system to release neurotransmitters that regulate our anxiety and responses to stress.
  3. Make time for yourself and others. Perhaps you need to step away from technology for a while. When we work remotely, the lines between work time and personal time can very easily blur. During the current crisis, we need to be aware of this and may need to be more proactive about maintaining a better delineation of work and home. Perhaps we need to stop having the phone next to the bed, or ensure we still take a break from work at lunchtime. Equally, now is not the time to be shy about reaching out to others if we need help. Keep asking ‘R U OK?’. And, importantly, if you live alone ask ‘AM I OK?’. If you are alone and are not OK, give yourself the same advice you would give others. Be kind to yourself – if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself.

Most pundits suggest that after the COVID-19 crisis ends, we won’t necessarily return to our old ways of working. Government restrictions will lift, and the global marketplace will open up again, yet we will most likely continue to apply some of what this experience has taught us. Will working from home become the rule rather than the exception? Will our thirst for air travel reduce? Will we see even greater collaboration and sharing with clients and even our previous competitors?

If any silver linings can emerge from this crisis, perhaps one may be a greater willingness and ability to embrace technology and to use it to promote connection and collaboration. Used effectively, and with a people-focused mindset, there are clear psychological and organisational benefits if we all extend and enhance our collaborations. In my discussions with colleagues at Golder I have posited this: If we use this time to more actively embrace the technological options for reaching out virtually, far beyond the local, we’ll be better able to engage the brightest minds anywhere in the world, so we can keep solving our clients’ challenges and delivering seamless services across the globe.

Matt Wallace

Principal, HSSE Regional Leader

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