“Giving an A,” or Cultivating Human Connections Online

Cat peering over laptop screen

Who invited you??

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

I was in a socially distanced meeting with colleagues in the Graduate School and the Career Center last week, and we started discussing the challenges of running online professional development workshops for grad students. After migrating our events online, we were all noticing:

  • A much larger gap between students who register and those who actually show up
  • People joining the call well after the event is underway
  • People vanishing from the call with no notice, before its conclusion

We also discussed differences in how people were “showing up” on the calls. Some attendees chose not to turn their cameras on. Others turned their cameras on, but showed up differently—let’s just say, in ways they probably would not show up to in-person events.

We all felt the need to share what we were noticing, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me what would be helpful to say.

So if you’re dreading a lecture in online professionalism, you won’t get one here. In difficult and unprecedented times, it’s critical to give people the benefit of the doubt. In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander refer to this strategy as “Giving an A.” In other words, if we believe that others are doing the best they can, how does that alter our own behavior? What does “Giving an A” to someone look like in a given situation?

After my first full week of living and working in Online Duke, I’ve had multiple opportunities to reflect on the challenges of showing up professionally online. Those of you I’ve advised with recently have probably also met my cat, who likes to sit on my keyboard. I’ve had my camera off for some of the larger meetings I’ve attended, because they’ve happened over lunchtime and I’ve had to pop out of my seat to help my now-homeschooled kids use the stove. I see my Duke colleagues navigating similar challenges, and everyone has been gracious and kind. I’ve gotten enough “A”s this week to maintain at least a 3.5.

I hope you are extending As to everyone you interact with online as well. And taking this one step further, in what other ways can you be both kind and present to everyone you encounter in a virtual space?

This question is critical, because the highly transactional nature of online engagements can blunt our perception that we’re still dealing with real people. It was a critical question before we moved everything online. However, until further notice, online engagements are all we have. So how might you act differently towards someone in a workshop or meeting, if you consider that your online presence might be one of the few human interactions they get all day?

What follows is not a list of prescriptions for maintaining professionalism online. That remains a work in progress for everyone. Rather, here are some suggestions of things you might do or consider, if you’d like for your online engagements to transcend the merely transactional, and contribute to strengthening mutual connections and strong networks as we muddle through COVID-19 together.

Be as courteous as possible.

If you can’t attend a meeting or workshop, let the facilitator know. If you need to arrive late or depart early, again, let the facilitator know. To minimize disruptions to the proceedings, use the chat feature to notify others about your imminent departure. Unless you are speaking, keep yourself muted to minimize aural distractions.

Consider turning your camera on.

As referenced above, there may be good reasons to keep the camera off sometimes. Given the challenges of social distancing and prolonged remote work, you may be tired or out of sorts or just not feeling presentable some days. But consider what helps you feel most connected to others online. Is it talking to a black box with a name inside, or is it seeing a human face?

If your camera is on, what do others see?

You may be in the habit of micro-grooming before video calls, or you may not. I’m not going to wander into this territory. But what adjustments can you make, to support others in feeling engaged with and connected to you? Is there, for an example, a window or other bright light source behind you on the call? Can people actually see your face, or are you showing up like someone in a witness protection program? Can people actually focus on you, or have you gotten a little too attached to your Hogwarts or Star Wars-themed virtual background?

Are you listening?

Careful, active listening takes a lot of attention and energy even in face-to-face meetings. Consider the myriad other distractions involved in online calls. What would it take for you to focus exclusively on whoever you are speaking with online? How might you use other cues (facial expression, tone of voice) to listen for what’s not being said? How can you show others that you are listening carefully and engaging with what they say? Can you give someone “eye contact” by looking directly at your laptop camera intermittently, or will people see you looking down the entire time?

Cultivate the 1:1 connections.

I was in a large group meeting this week (30+ people), and someone on the call sent me a single private message on chat: “Hey Maria, great to see you at this meeting! I hope you and your family are doing well.” I don’t remember many details from that large meeting, but that one kind message stands out for me. When large meetings get moved online, we may have to think harder about how we reinforce individual relationships. The spontaneous greetings and quick 1:1 check-ins we have with others before and after large in-person gatherings won’t happen organically online.

Follow up, a lot.

If you enjoyed a particular workshop or presentation, or liked something someone said in a meeting, send a quick email acknowledgement or thanks. If someone showed up on a call looking a bit more worn or harried than usual, consider a follow-up email to check in.

Forging and maintaining personal connections is much harder online, but it’s not impossible. In the weeks ahead, you may have to expend more thought and effort for each interaction. It may feel a bit like having to switch your workout to a heavier set of weights or a steeper, more hilly terrain. But just as runners get an advantage from training in high altitudes, my hope is that our capacities for social connection will have strengthened, not deteriorated, once we’re back together again. You have some agency, in regard to how this collective online experience will shape you, as a student, scholar, teacher, and colleague. Who do you want to become?