By: Carolyn Grabiel
Zombie films, like all genres, follow a formula. One of the first elements is the protagonist’s lack of awareness that the world has gone dystopian. The actor playing the lead role goes about a routine while missing the dramatic changes all around them: the neighbors are missing, everyone is limping, stumbling, shuffling their feet and the local grocery store is in flames.
The scenes are relevant to pandemic reality, and we may find ourselves in the role of the protagonist. Many of us carry on with the same routines that worked fine in 2019. We dutifully put the weekly Wednesday staff meetings in our calendars, arrange chats with fellow educators, and do our best to keep our inboxes in order. But wait! No matter how much you may seek to ignore the blatant changes all around you, they’re here.
Our communication patterns have been well-disrupted. Research shows that those who acknowledge the present moment’s reality, a key component of most mindfulness practices, increase their resilience and ability to cope with whatever stressors life presents to them. The JabuMind App uses the science-based and empirically-proven method of iRest to teach present-moment awareness.
COVID Communication Challenges
The first step toward saving yourself from the zombies is to acknowledge that communication with colleagues in the time of COVID differs significantly from pre-COVID communications in at least three distinct ways:
- Visual Cues
- Environmental Consistency
- Technology Requirements
Let’s unpack these to get a closer look at what you, and your colleagues, are dealing with in your day-to-day communications.
When all reported into the office each day, there was time for visual contact. When you asked your colleague how the conversation went with a struggling student, you could see the slight shadow of a wrinkle between the eyebrows as they responded, “Fine,” and perhaps query for a few more details.
Sure, we have Zoom and GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts, but the smaller nuances are primarily lost to the camera. Moreover, we often find ourselves in online meetings with two or four or six or even more attendees. We must choose between seeing everyone at once while losing nuance to smaller pictures or viewing the speaker in a broader view, which relegates all others to nearly thumbnail-sized views. Even if we are in a video conversation with just one other person, expression cues are still muted. Psychologist David Matsumoto explains that, due to the lack of shadow play on wrinkle patterns visible in three-dimensional settings but not in two-dimensional viewing, we lose the ability to detect more subtle expression changes.
Further, as Dr. Matsumoto discusses in this video, humans did not evolve for two-dimensional conversations. Instead, we have evolved towards a three-dimensional communication style, with subtle cues coming from facial expressions and body movements and stances. Video conferencing does not give us the “full dimensional package.” We cannot view movements from the waist down, nor see people’s body language as they approach or leave a meeting. We also have more visual distractions; the biggest one for me is the ability to see myself. How am I coming across? How will it appear if I look away from the camera to wave goodbye to my husband as he leaves for the day? What in the heck is going on with my hair?
Environmental Consistency and Camaraderie
In a shared office or classroom space, we all have the same environment. The temperature can be a conversation starter or even a bonding element as we endure together in a break room that is too frigid or too warm. Colleagues can banter in the Teacher’s Lounge over coffee and exchange ideas as they pass in the hallways. That has all changed as we communicate from our work-from-home (WFH) environments.
In the new WFH normal, we are all in at least slightly different climates. Sue has on a down-filled vest, Sam is in a light sweater, and Aliyah is wearing a sleeveless blouse. Most are indoors, and a few are outdoors. The temperatures of the spaces where we each work are just the beginning.
Each attendee in a video meeting also will have different distraction levels. For example, Jamal grapples with three children under the age of ten. All are home as summer camps have been canceled and visits with friends are a thing of the past. His partner is a front-line worker as a Physician’s Assistant at the hospital, so concern about infection hovers over him and his family. When summer is over, Jamal will need to figure out how to keep working, hopefully without distraction, while overseeing his children’s school day from home.
Sam is an introvert and single. He lives in a lovely, high-ceilinged condo with no children, no cats, and no dogs. His life hasn’t changed much during the pandemic and, though he feels as though he has an understanding of how others are affected, he considers himself fortunate that this stay-at-home and work lifestyle is ideal for him. He’s hoping to convince his employer to continue his WFH status long after the pandemic is only a memory.
I have two teenagers at home. All. Day. Long. The transition to an at-home work environment initially caused much friction, as my family figured out when they could hit “brew” on the noisy espresso maker (hint: not in the middle of a Zoom meeting where I am introducing partners in Singapore and India). I eventually figured out enough of a structure to give them a “quiet” schedule and “make all of the coffee you’d like, and please may I have some?” times.
Loneliness is another challenge when working from home. Without the more physical type of communication given by a high five or a hug after a successful round of parent conferences or a Teacher of the Year Award, many begin to feel disengaged and out of sorts. Eurofound and the International Labour Office gives a detailed account of the complex factors that feed into whether an individual has a positive or negative overall response to working from home. Some find that the absence of a commute and increased autonomy improve work-life balance and productivity. Others struggle to create boundaries between work and personal life, leading to an intensification of work stress. It is not uncommon for workers to struggle with loneliness and even depression due to the isolative nature of a WFH environment.
The shift from low-tech to high-tech all across the world is a sea-change in communication style. With it has come a steep learning curve for us as we learn how to use video-conferencing programs, grapple with wifi connectivity issues, and deal with a slew of new security and privacy issues. Teachers are trained to be IN the classroom, responding to raised hands, walking over to students’ desks to help them with a math problem or a sentence structure conundrum. Now, they are teaching to a computer while often simultaneously fielding chat-box communications ranging from how to get into the meeting to requests for additional help with the lesson. On top of it all, tech help may be hard to come by as IT personnel are spread thin and are unable to offer hands-on support.
COVID Communication Solutions
Communicate More, Not Less
A key approach that is relevant to both administrators and staff is to communicate MORE, not less. Stress can interfere with both absorption and recall of information. Repetition of information and plans allows several opportunities to assimilate information, which can lead to a decrease in anxiety and, in a positive spiral, an increase in effective communication.
Prevent Zoom Fatigue
Consider the genuine phenomena of “Zoom Fatigue.” Zoom is the name of a video-conferencing company that has become the most widely used of its kind during the pandemic. Zoom Fatigue refers to the exhaustion one is apt to feel after a long day of video-conferencing. Meeting via a web camera is more taxing than meeting in person as it requires what the article refers to as “constant gaze.” In other words, we are continuously focused on the screen in front of us. Rarely does it happen during a face-to-face meeting that we stand 3 feet or less from our companion and stare directly into their face for an extended period.
Though in-person visual cues add an essential layer to communication, video meetings make these visual advantages more costly in terms of attention fatigue. Strive to make meetings shorter. In staff meetings, for example, include only subjects that affect all members. Those that affect sub-groups can be addressed by those groups in other, short meetings.
Be Sensitive to Others’ Struggles
Be aware of and sensitive to those who may be struggling more profoundly during this time. Examples could be parents with young children, care-givers, and those at a higher risk for serious illness.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian Maclaren
Be Vulnerable – It’s Ok to Make Mistakes
Do your best to stay in “Experimental Mode” or “Beginner’s Mind.” Go ahead and try, and fail, and be vulnerable in your communication and allow your colleagues to do the same. Adjust your vision to reframe challenging communications as puzzles rather than problems. If you can shift your perspective in this manner, it can change feelings of frustration and failure into those of motivation and achievement. Carol Dweck illuminated these discoveries in her research on what she coined a “Growth Mindset.” In one study by Dweck, teachers with a growth mindset were shown to pass that perspective and the achievement ability that accompanies it on to their students.
Ensure that you consider Diversity/Equity/Inclusion (DEI) in parallel with COVID communication considerations. Items to consider are meeting structure, reading lists, and professional development courses offered. Are all of these inclusive and set up under the light of equity? Let’s continue on our journey to building better institutions.
Practice Mindful Communication
As you settle into the “new normal” and become more and more aware that our world is decidedly different if not dystopian, we hope you are also becoming aware of your communication skills’ depth and breadth. Checking in with yourself and keeping that reactive “lizard brain” at bay will allow you to rise to this challenge—even if zombies appear.