Maximizing Human Contact in a Remote World

Published: January 13, 2021

The vast majority of coaching and training sessions at the Center for Team Excellence have taken place on a virtual platform over the past ten months. Our consultant team reports feeling depleted. We’re not alone. ‘Zoom fatigue’ reportedly affects more than 300 million daily users. The current research tells us that viewing a video screen doesn’t light up the same neurological pathways that face-to-face contact ignites. The cost-reward ratio simply doesn’t pay off since the effort to connect doesn’t generate the same dopamine buzz we get around the water cooler in the breakroom. How do we bring the buzz back?

Begin by distinguishing the interactions that are energizing from the ones that are depleting. Simply, sharing exchanges with a human increases energy while interacting with a machine subtracts. The more people on the screen, the greater the likelihood that the brain will perceive the relationship as being with an object rather than with a living thing. A relationship with a machine just doesn’t activate the production of oxytocin, the hormone involved in social bonding.

On video, you have to look at the camera rather than your partner to create the experience of eye contact. Even when you do that, it’s not the mutual gaze that causes the feeling of connection that ramps of the oxytocin buzz in both participants. Only one member of the exchange gets the drug, unless you take turns. So, what are the work-arounds? Here are four tips for maximizing human contact in a remote world.

  • Be generous with eye contact to create the experience of mutual gaze for each other. In addition to taking turns looking directly at the camera when both speaking and listening, pay attention to the moment when receiving eye contact might be most important. The experience of eye contact elevates the sense of connection most when it occurs during a poignant or meaningful moment. So, when your partner is sharing something heartfelt, look at the camera. When you are hoping to strengthen a message, look at the camera. It’s a difficult habit to establish but it makes a big difference.
  • Pay close attention to subtle facial expressions and body language. Facial expression and body language are the first cues that prime us for reciprocal interaction. We adapt to these communications with our partners in milliseconds by cognitively preparing for exchange. The neurological infrastructure for these signals was established in infancy so we rely on them heavily to create a sense of bond. Dialing up attention to these subtle changes will boost connection.
  • Eliminate environmental distractions. The list of competing priorities for our attention is endless. Unless you intentionally shield yourself from them, they will hijack the precious and valuable devotion to engagement needed to fuel human contact. Whether it’s the alert tones on your news feed, the other computer screen, your lack of privacy or the scene unfolding outside your window, these distractions force us to multi-task which can only subtract from the highest priority of your attention.
  • Share mutual interest. Regardless of the communication platform – video, text, phone, email or in-person – connection rises when we show a genuine interest in the other person’s life. Get personal. Checking in on shared health, friend, family and community interests is just as important – perhaps more important – than the agenda of the meeting. Even superficial small talk feeds bonding. The deeper and more authentic the exchange, the more hormonal and neurological pathways to connection are activated.

We don’t have to wait until the world comes back to ‘normal’ to enjoy human connection. The new normal is teaching us how to invest in each other in ways never before discovered. Perhaps we can evolve as a species as an adaptation to our new limitations. Maybe we can fine-tune our antenna reception so powerfully that our humanness can be communicated, even on a machine.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.