Remote but not alone

The endless hours I’ve spent sitting in front of my computer over the past 18 months have afforded me an opportunity to reflect on the nature of human connection. Working remotely is not a new thing for me. Like many of my collaborators, I have been working remotely from my home and other locations for over 20 years. Until 2020, though, remoteness came in tandem with mobility. I alternated between working virtually from home and in-person with colleagues and clients spread across Asia and rest of the world. While the travel was sometimes exhausting, one of the rewards of this lifestyle was that I got to spend a lot of time with different groups of people in different physical spaces. My life and work naturally included a lot of time in the physical presence of other people.

Until 2020 mobility was a pre-condition for connection

Since March of 2020, those of us who are lucky enough to have careers that allow us to work from home have settled into a very different mode of work and life. We spend far less time in the physical presence of others, so we are much more aware of the experience of being alone. When you go to an office every day, you have no choice but to spend time with other people. It may be the same people that you see every day, but the very fact that you see those people every day facilitates a natural sense of connection.

When that routine of commuting to an office or traveling to meet colleagues and clients is taken away, you naturally become more aware of how much time you now spend physically alone. Depending on how intense the pandemic has been in your locality, you may also have extracted yourself from the rivers of strangers that constantly flow through the sidewalks, roads, parks, shopping malls and entertainment venues that form the social infrastructure of our lives.

Connectivity is replacing mobility as the infrastructure of human relationships

The transition to virtual connectivity has not been a smooth one. Many of us have been overwhelmed by the degree to which limitless connectivity makes us limitlessly available to others. The back-to-back meetings can start from early in the morning and end in the wee hours of the following morning. Moreover, there are people we absolutely need to connect with, such as customers, who are not easy to reach via virtual networks.

The simple truth is that it is easier to get some things done sitting together in the same room writing on the same whiteboard. Video-conferencing can be a very efficient way to get business done, but it is not the same as sitting in the same room with other living, breathing humans. And even with all of the downsides of virtual work, we have to remember that we are the lucky ones. There are many people who would prefer to work virtually, but who cannot do so due to the requirements of their jobs.

In a stay-at-home world, it is only natural that one might start to feel disconnected, but my experience of virtual life has actually been surprisingly connected. As the pandemic shifted from potential threat to immediate threat, my social circles and social interactions actually began to expand for the first time in many years. Since I spent less time in transit, I no longer needed periods of isolation to recover when I got home from my last business trip. Likewise, since I had more time to be at home with my family, I felt less of a need to cordon off my home life from the intrusions of work and society. While my pre-pandemic life repeatedly routed me through similar travel routes and people networks, in this new virtual world, I started to realize that it was possible for me to proactively reach out to connect with people across a wider range of fields and geographies – old friends and colleagues, new friends and colleagues, potential collaborators and sometimes even people who I didn’t know at all but who just seemed worth trying to meet.

The significance and power of choosing to connect

I’ve discovered that while the virtual world has opened up a lot of space between us, that space is far from empty. I’ve connected or re-connected with artists, doctors, social entrepreneurs and researchers – people who do things I once thought I might want to do and people who do things I would never do myself but would nonetheless like to know more about. A few of these connections have helped me to discover or re-discover interests that had escaped my attention when my time and attention were consumed with crossing land and sea to spend time in the physical presence of other people.

Whatever the downsides of our immersive, connective, networking technologies, they do form an architecture that enables us to connect with other people in both organized and random ways across great distances in an instant. The virtual world has been scaffolded together based on hierarchies and algorithms designed to herd and sort us toward the achievement of someone else’s goals, like the consumption of products, services (or outrage at the actions of our fellow humans), but just like the byways and skyways of the physical world – which were also designed for someone else’s purposes – our virtual networks can also bring us closer to people and places we have chosen for ourselves.

Despite the hierarchies and priorities behind the design of our virtual world there is still a rhizomatic quality to the networks of our virtual lives.

The internet, web and social networking platforms bear some resemblance to the rhizomes that connect the roots of the trees in a forest. Like rhizomes, they are hidden from our sight, yet they connect almost everything and everyone that is visible to us. We can take advantage of this infrastructure to connect directly to people who we would never have the time or inclination to meet in the physical world, and we can even take advantage of the algorithms and infrastructure of the virtual world to reach out and form connections based on our own personal priorities and objectives. With a little curiosity and initiative, we can find and reach out to a surprisingly wide range of people.

Many of these connections won’t lead to anything in particular. Our attempts to connect are often understandably ignored or rejected, and it is also unfortunately true that a few of these attempts to connect may bring undesirable results or even expose us to unexpected risks. That is why it is so important that we be intentional about how we use our virtual connectivity. Even in the virtual world, I am selective about who I reach out to with an invitation to connect. And I am even more careful in my consideration of whether to accept invitations from others, especially when I can’t see any clear context to explain the invitation.

On the balance, though, in a virtual world it probably makes more sense to err on the side of proactivity than passivity. We don’t have water coolers to gather around for casual chats that might reveal opportunities we would otherwise miss. There are no chance encounters at copy machines or coffee shops where we serendipitously hear new ideas or discover new colleagues, friends or clients. We cannot expect our social connections to come to us by chance. Still, if we take time to remember who we know, who we want to know, and the potential of all those connections, we may discover ample opportunities to build our networks in ways that contribute to purposes we care about.

The space between us is waiting to be filled

To enjoy the breadth and depth of our virtual social worlds, perhaps we need to reframe the way we think about what we mean by human connection. Perhaps the gaping holes left in our social worlds by the collapse of mobility can also be seen as open spaces of potentiality waiting to be filled as we reach out to connect across geographies, cultures and organizations to create more robust and diverse networks of friends and colleagues.

Imagine the possibilities. Take a tour through your world of existing and potential virtual connections. You might just find someone is interested in talking about the things you really care about or interested in helping you find something new to care about. And in some cases, you might decide to take action together to turn some of those possibilities into new realities.

And the best news is that you won’t have to spend hours or days in transit to get to the physical spaces where those people reside before you can start finding out about those possibilities. We may be remote and immobile, but whether we are alone or not is a matter of choice.

For research on the impact of small positive interactions with people with whom you have weak ties on your own well-being and the well-being of others, listen to this interview with Gillian Sandstorm on Hidden Brain. These are the kinds of interactions that become more difficult in our virtual environment.

© Dana Cogan 2021, all rights reserved.

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