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Overcoming the Painful Loss of Casual (But Vital) Connections in the Time of COVID

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For the last few weeks, I’ve been working with hundreds of members and leaders who are part of suddenly-virtual teams, all trying to come to grips with the implications of the “new normal,” whatever that may come to mean. While many seem to be forging ahead without skipping a beat, many more confess to feeling a grievous sense of loss.

Some losses may seem obvious, like the loss of physical connection to people we care about, the inability to venture out freely, and the disappearance – possibly forever – of once-thriving establishments that are suddenly shuttered.

One of the most profound losses that people report feeling may be one of the least obvious: It’s the absence of those serendipitous conversations and casual connections that we took for granted, which have all but vanished overnight.

Sarah, a leader of a suddenly virtual team, put it this way: “Before COVID, when I’d walk through the lobby, Fred the security guard would greet me by name. Jenn, the coffee shop barista on the second floor, always had my soy latte ready for me. When I took the elevator, I exchanged greetings with people I knew only vaguely. Walking through the caf, I would catch up with people who weren’t in my daily orbit. All of that’s suddenly gone now. The only people I meet with these days (and always on Zoom!) are my own team members, or people I work with directly. Those other connections – the casual, spontaneous, unplanned kind – are suddenly MIA. And it makes me really sad.”

The kind of connections Sarah is describing are what some refer to as “weak ties,” or people with whom we have occasional interactions or tenuous relationships that we have counted on to be there for us, whether consciously or not. It’s the loss of these casual connections that can hurt the most, simply because they can be so hard to recreate in today’s world. While we may get together online several times a week with those we work with most often, it’s the people who sit on the periphery of our lives we may be missing the most.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, Why You Miss Those Casual Friends So Much, in a normal workday, people interact with somewhere between 11 and 16 weak ties on the way to work, while running errands, or on a break between meetings. (And people like me who have worked remotely for years may have a dozen such interactions each workday, whether face-to-face or virtual.) When we no longer have these reminders that we’re part of a wider social network, we may feel a void that can be hard to fill without thoughtful effort.

The absence of these casual relationships is stunting us both socially and professionally. Weak ties bring circles of networks into contact with each other, strengthening relationships and forming new bonds between existing relationship circles, according to Eileen Brown in her article in Social Media Today. Those who have few weak ties won’t be picking up information from the more distant parts of their social system, confining them to narrowly-focused news and views of their closest colleagues and friends.

So how can we work to fortify these casual connections or rekindle dormant ties at a time when our worlds suddenly feel so much smaller? Here are some tips:

  • Pick up the phone. (Can I really do that?!) Actually, more people are doing that than ever before. Verizon reported that the average number of daily calls in the second half of March was 800M, or far more than the average number of calls on the most popular calling holidays like Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Not only are there more calls, but the average call was 33% longer. People are reaching out to have real conversations, rather than quick check-ins. Even for someone like me who typically avoids chatty phone conversations, I am spending more time on calls, especially with those who have few voice connections on a usual day.
  • Send a text. (But, isn’t that a big intrusion?) If you are texting to check on the status of a report you’re waiting for, you may have a point. But if you’re texting to say hello or to let the person know you’re thinking about them, this kind of personal, direct connection can go a long way to making someone feel cared for. Send a text with a message that can stand alone without the other person feeling obliged to respond. Instead of texting simply “Hi,” say something like: “I’ve been thinking about you and hope you’re doing okay.” Verizon also reports a huge spike in the number of daily text messages since we began physical distancing, with an average of 9B (yup, that’s billion!) text messages a day.
  • Send a message through LinkedIn to some of your connections you haven’t touched base with lately. Let them know you’re thinking of them, ask how they’re doing, or comment on a recent post they may have made. If you’re up for it, suggest some days/times for a quick call, or ask when might be good for them. (Avoid making such a suggestion if you’re unlikely to follow through. It’s better not to ask if you truly can’t make the time.) A simple check-in may suffice just fine.
  • Mail something. (Yes, I mean snail mail!) This can be a card where you’ve jotted down an expression of gratitude or a warm greeting, or a relevant article you’ve enclosed with a personal note. Recognize milestones like birthdays, work anniversaries, or special achievements with a card, even if you haven’t sent one in years. A posting on social media is fine, but sending something tangible, especially with your own handwriting, has more meaning than ever these days. I make my own notecards with photos of my favorite places, but even a plain piece of paper will do. And if you have budding artists at home, they’ll probably be proud to whip something up, if you ask them pretty please.
  • Rekindle dormant ties. In his recent NYT article, We Don’t Just Need to Connect – We Need to Re-connect, Wharton professor and author Adam Grant points out that by re-establishing contact with our dormant ties (those we’ve lost touch with for three years or so), we can have the best of both worlds. That’s because they can give us fresh perspectives, and we also have a shared history. When we’re looking for help or ideas, it’s easier to reach out to those we know. Although it might feel awkward to make contact after a long absence, Grant reports that in one study, 90 percent of those who overcame their hesitation to reach out reported it as fun and enjoyable. Grant shares a tip from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman: Remind the person what you found special about your interaction, and link that to the reason you want to reconnect. Or, your reason may be even more simple: “I’m thinking of you today and wanted to check in to see how you’re doing through all of this.”
  • Start a club. Membership can include professional connections, personal connections, or a combination. (See “Connect Others” below.) Perhaps you can take the initiative to create a shared space where you invite a network of connections to share their favorite recipes (with photos!), movies, restaurants, stores, spas, vacation spots, etc. Starting a book club (wine optional) can also be a great way to pave the way for stimulating conversations that can help people escape the here-and-now and experience new adventures, together. If you’re part of a virtual happy hour already, try inviting one or two new people once in a while, as long as everyone agrees.
  • Connect others. Think about someone you know who might benefit by meeting a new colleague, community member, neighbor or fellow student, and offer to make a mutual introduction. Maybe there’s someone on your team who shares a passion for a hobby or topic with someone else you know. Or perhaps you’re aware of a few friends or colleagues who are struggling to keep their kids engaged with distance learning, who might benefit from sharing tips or just commiserating. Make sure that all are aware of your intention to connect them before you make the invitation.
  • Connect yourself. Consider beginning an informal “community of practice” with like-minded friends or colleagues who share certain interests, whether professional or personal. For example, you may know of people who share your interest in becoming a better facilitator, writer, or trainer. Reach out to likely candidates to gauge their interest, find a good time for your first gathering, and ask people what they’d like to get out of being a community member, and what they may be able to contribute, and then go from there.

As author Rebecca Solnit so eloquently points out in her article Life Inside This Strange New Fairytale Doesn’t Have to be Lonely, nearly all of us would like to be at the end of the story, because to live in the middle of it is to live in suspense and uncertainty about what will happen. Reaching out to others, especially those not in our day-to-day networks, can help us feel less isolated and more grounded. As Adam Grant reminds us, the act of reaching out allows us to feel that we matter, that we’re valued and appreciated. Even a quick hello or a small gesture of thoughtfulness can help remind us that we are in fact a vital part of a much larger social system. Although it might feel awkward at first, there’s no better time to get in touch with the people you used to know.

Links

Life Inside This Strange New Fairytale Doesn’t Have to be Lonely by Rebecca Solnit, LitHub, April 2020

We Don’t Just Need to Connect – We Need to Re-connect by Adam Grant, published in April 2020 New York Times

Why Your Weak Ties Matter  by Eileen Brown, Social Media Today

Making Time for Networking as a Working Parent by David Burkus, Harvard Business Review, May 2018

Past Communiques:

Networking in a Virtual World

Accelerate On-the-Job Learning with Peer Roundtables (with Penny Pullan)

Ghosting Can Come Back to Haunt You – Here’s Why and How to Avoid It