Humans are social animals. From birth, we’re hard-wired for connection and community.
The current environment places this essential need under huge threat.
With the requirement for social distancing and remote working to cope with the public health threat posed by the coronavirus, the accompanying sense of isolation and disconnectedness could end up taking a huge toll on our mental health.
Research from dozens of studies finds a consistent relationship between social isolation, depression, anxiety and worse.
It’s all rooted in science.
We experience isolation as a physical state of emergency. The absence of social connection creates a state of stress in the body, stimulated by the release of more cortisol (stress hormone) and a lack of oxytocin (social bonding hormone).
But this isn't about laying it on thick with the doom and gloom.
Actually, as human beings, we’re incredibly resilient. And the more flexible we are, the greater our resilience to trauma.
Someone recently made the brilliant analogy of buildings that are made to withstand earthquakes by swaying with the movement of the shaking ground below.
This greater flexibility allows them to withstand the stress. Don’t ask me to explain the science of the design, but you get the idea.
Just like those buildings, we also have some pretty nifty technology to give us that flexibility, supporting us through this crisis and beyond: the likes of Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Whatsapp, Facetime and others.
While the current crisis may have jolted us into action, the trend of remote working and physical distance is by no means new.
If we weren't doing it already, it's time we harnessed technology in whatever guise to stay connected.
Crisis or no crisis, virtual communication can be used to supplement our face-to-face interactions, making us more agile and flexible and our interconnectedness more resilient.
This has to be a good thing, given our reliance on feeling connected for health and happiness.
Research professor Brené Brown puts it brilliantly.
She says: “Fear and anxiety can drive us to become very self-focused [but] this is the ultimate reminder that we are inextricably connected to each other.
"Turning away from collective action right now – as tempting as it is – will only generate more pain.”
Businesses must take drastic action make sure their people stay connected.
Eric Yuan, chief executive of Zoom, said recently: “Given this coronavirus, I think overnight almost everybody really understood they needed a tool like this…..This will dramatically change the landscape.
"I truly believe in the future, everyone will [use] video for remote worker collaboration.”
We’ll discover a lot through this forced geographical isolation.
Sometimes absence is the only way to truly understand the value of something.
At The Speakers' Gym, we believe in the importance of teams with high levels of emotional intelligence that communicate exceptionally well every day.
Much of our consultancy is focused on equipping teams with the practical tools to put our core philosophy into action: 'speak, listen, act' and repeat.
Teams that stay connected, that speak and listen to each other, are far more agile. They are also innovative, and learn to fail fast and move on.
Teams that work in silos and that don’t collaborate are less happy and far less productive.
When you remove the physical place of work, you realise just how vital this communication and connection is for business success. More and more firms will learn this now.
It’s not enough to rely on presence in a common space for connection. We’ll have to work harder. In fact, being simply present at an office has made us a little lazy.
The tools have been available for some time. We just haven’t made best use of them.
Recently I spoke with a team leader who said their business has had access to Microsoft Teams for years. They’re only now making use of it.
There could be countless practical advances in the way businesses work through being forced to embrace virtual communication tools in the immediate term.
A positive experience of not having to be physically present and travel to a meeting could result in lasting changes.
We can start saving the money, time and headpsace exerted just to get everyone in one place. We could reduce our carbon footprint and improve work-life balance.
This isn’t about doing away with face-to-face interaction. Far from it.
But by embracing more flexible means of communicating, we’ll remove barriers and increase our interconnectedness.
There’s no escaping it – this is an incredibly challenging time and the effects of the coranavirus have already been devastating.
To be clear, I’m not claiming the current situation to be a happily ever after.
But if it forces us to start exploring new ways to stay connected and to collaborate, regardless of the logistical challenges, this is one positive.
If it also forces us to understand the value in looking out for each other, and in coming together to tackle our biggest challenges, business (and everyone else) will eventually reap the benefits.