Creativity & Humanism

Staying Human while Virtual

By Sean Park, PhD (@profseanpark)
Originally Published, March 24, 2020

How do we stay human when we’re collaborating virtually? Let’s start by understanding our needs and design practices and rituals that make virtual connections something we want to do.

  1. Encourage Multiple Ways of Shifting our Attention

Virtual interactions are weird because we tend to be confined to a single screen without much else to do. We are naturally inquisitive and our senses need to continually scan the environment for interesting differences. Summarizing some of the advice from Glenn Fajardo at Stanford, try:

  • Cameras on - Encouraging everyone to switch on their cameras helps us to see and relate to one another as living, moving creatures.

  • Pay attention to faces, body language, and voice. What are people doing with their hands or their eyes? How does attention shift over the course of a video call? Make it a practice to switch your view between “speaker view” and “gallery view” to get a sense of how people are responding.

  • Tinker with making interactions more embodied. We can use our faces, heads, arms (and more) to communicate without having to speak. Using gestures like thumbs up for “OK” or “good”, raised hands for “I have a question”, hands cupped to your ear for “I didn’t get that”, or moving your index fingers in a forward rotating motion for “Keep going” can help keep conversations moving.

  • Collaborate in real-time on a shared document or canvas. Converging participants’ attention on something everyone can edit in real-time helps develop a sense of collective effort and identity. Tools like MURAL are digital whiteboards that can make the work visual. Spatially rearranging ideas and images keeps our attention moving. Fajardo suggests some activities that for working on a project that requires brainstorming, selecting ideas, and building out ideas into actions:

  • Idea Flares - use a digital space for generating lots of ideas about a given topic or question before taking action

  • What’s interesting – Vote to quickly choose best ideas

  • Quick Builds - using Zoom breakout rooms for conversations to make ideas concrete

  • Share Out - high-level summary reports back to the larger zoom room

  • ‘Pops’ reflection - asking participants what stood out most (‘popped out’) about the call

  • Closing high-five - everyone giving a high-five toward the camera on the count of 3

See what these ideas look like in practice here.

  1. Create shared rituals that promote human connection

Rituals are activities that people do with intention to engender a deeper sense of meaning and connection. More resources on the role of ritual in personal, team, and organizational life can be found here (Ozenc) and here (IDEO). Designer Ozenc suggest some rituals for virtual teams including:

  • Check-in rounds - The folks at Medium use this one. Everyone shares a short status update of their choice about themselves (not their work). This can include “their current emotional state, what is going on in their work or personal lives, how they really, really need that cup of coffee they’re holding, or how they ran into an old friend on the way to work today, so they’re feeling extra jazzed about life.”

  • Props and Phrases Designer Ozenc created a ritual where everyone holds a physical prop during the call - a stone, a lightbulb, a Habs jersey, etc. When the person is speaking they hold the prop and ‘throw’ it to the camera when they pass the turn to the next person. Common phrases created by the group could also be used.

  • Addressing burnout - Some ideas for rituals designed to addressed workplace burnout can be found here

  1. Use Warm Up and Energizing Activities

Useful at the beginning of virtual meetings. They help people to get to know each other, try out digital tools, enable individual expression, keep people engaged and support creativity. Some activities suggested by MURAL include:

  • Show and Tell - Participants upload photos of their working environment to a MURAL/digital whiteboard and take turns guessing who is in which space and why

  • First Job - Everyone first uses sticky notes and images on a digital whiteboard, then each person tells stories about the job.

  • Genie in a Bottle - Ask: “if you had three wishes, what would you wish for?”. Use images to represent your wishes then talk about them.

  • Where Are We? - Post photos of your immediate working environment, or for remote teams put sticky notes and pin icons on a digital world map image.

  • Superpowers - Ask people “What’s your superpower? What skill do you bring to the team?” And let people use images and sticky notes to represent it.

  • Energizers - Wake up people’s moods, bodies, and motivation with quick, interactive activities. Energizers help in shifting between activities, set tone for conversations, and keep team culture playful. Examples include:

          • Group Playlists - Designate a team DJ to compile and share a list of favourite tracks on streaming apps like Spotify.

          • Name Tag - Tag each other on zoom by having one person “it” to call out the name of someone. The person shouts something out loud (“MWAHAAHAHA”) and is now “it”.

          • See a list of energizers here

Sean Park, PhD (@profseanpark)

Sean is an assistant professor in the Division of Education & Innovation (DEI) within the Department of Medicine. He has a passion for creative, alive, and engaged teaching and learning. He facilitates courses in design thinking, strategic foresight, experiential futures with the M.G. DeGroote Health Leadership Academy and iBioMed program.