The lighter side of working together at a distance

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexel

Since March 2020, so much of what we do has migrated to online spaces, a testament to the adaptive capacity of human beings and the communication systems we have developed. While there are many challenges associated with connecting from a distance, it feels important to highlight some of the unexpected perks and sweeter moments of working together while apart.

With professional colleges giving the green light for virtual psychotherapy, so much is possible. People have varying degrees of emotional and technical bandwidth for accessing online spaces, or connecting about personal issues by phone. Some lack privacy at home to speak freely, or access to reliable equipment or Wi-Fi. Others distrust or simply dislike connecting over virtual interfaces. Yet for many, appointments by distance are a welcome bridge to safety, health, location, time and other practical barriers to accessing counselling services.

Ease of access For women coping with postpartum issues, virtual therapy simplifies the process, especially in those early days of caring for an infant when getting out of the house for an appointment can be a monumental task. Getting to see new Mums interact with their babies from the comfort of home and hearing their little sounds in the background is a sweet bonus from my end.

Walk therapy I never much enjoyed talking on the phone, until I discovered that some of the best conversations with people in my life happen while one or both of us is walking somewhere. There is something about actively moving hands-free with headphones that generates ideas and discussion. Some therapy clients are opting for telephone appointments so that they have the freedom to roam around the house or go for private walk outside during session. Not for everyone, but it can work well.

Connecting families With my own large family spread across Canada, we have discovered the power of being all together in real time virtually in a way that rarely happens in person. But who knew that online couples counselling and family therapy could be so effective? There is something about us all being able to all see each other on screen at the same time that enriches empathetic communication, and I think it helps that only one person can speak at a time.

Animal helpers My cat proudly marched into my home office during a virtual couple therapy session the other day, the tail of a live and struggling field mouse dangling from his mouth. The couple’s cat heard its plaintive squeaking and jumped into the frame. Laughter ensued, but it took a few minutes to settle back to business. Zoom-bombing pets are a distraction in online spaces, but the presence of a calm, attentive animal can be grounding during stressful moments or when strong emotions arise during therapy. I love meeting and resourcing people’s dogs, cats, birds and other pets online, especially with some of my younger or more anxious clients.

Thinking outside the box This has been a year of learning creative ways of being together on-line: playing games, breaking bread and shared activities in real time. In the absence of in-person Sand Tray work, I am exploring novel approaches to working experientially, such as screen sharing resources and incorporating physical objects and craft materials from their home environments.

Opportunities for mindfulness The mini-interruptions, time lags and glitches with working remotely can easily disrupt flow and the usual give and take of conversation, particularly when more than two people are involved. Easy to become impatient and frustrated, or to zone out. I am trying to use these moments as an opportunity to be mindful, stay present and focused. It helps to pause and take a sip of water or a deep breath. I am learning to hang out more patiently in online spaces and over the phone, feeling less compelled to fill silences with words, and more intentional about slowing things down to talk about the things that really matter. This is definitely a work in progress.

Improved technology Internet capacity and the scope of online platforms are also a work in process, but rapidly evolving. There are regular hiccups. Faces frozen in unflattering expressions, and voices distorted into robotic monosyllables or trailing off into nothingness. However, the glitches are briefer and I am seeing vast improvements in overall connection quality (in my urban setting at least) compared to pre- and early pandemic experiences of learning and coaching in virtual spaces. And encryption standards have tightened. Privacy is paramount online.

Self awareness I often turn off the “mirror” when working virtually to minimize the distraction of my own on screen image Seeing ourselves can serve a useful feedback function though, bringing awareness to our non-verbal reactions, posture, and energy levels. I find it useful for teaching yoga, in that I can monitor my own alignment in postures as well as the participants.

Witnessing Virtual appointments felt a tad awkward at first. I worried about missing important body language cues given the partial, two-dimensional view of the person “in front” of me. Yet over time, the experience has shifted from a sense of interacting with a disembodied screen image to an actual face-to-face encounter in shared, intimate space. With greater “eye contact” at a closer range than would be comfortable in person (especially during a pandemic), I am noticing subtle changes in facial expression, and my headphones pick up nuances in tone of voice that I might miss in an actual room sitting further apart. Investing in better operating systems, lighting and audio equipment helps, but it seems like our brains have somehow adapted to this virtual reality.

Economics There are cost savings to working remotely, even with increased insurance fees and virtual office expenses. My clients save money on gas, parking, and time. I have bought way less Kleenex this year (but more cleaning supplies). Many of my colleagues are forgoing brick and mortar offices altogether, but I feel like I have the best of both worlds with splitting my time between home office and shared professional space.

Location freedom Being able to connect more reliably now with each other from almost anywhere in this global village is a game changer. Working virtually opens up so many new possibilities in terms of where we live and travel.

Balance Hours spent plugged into remote connections are hard on mind and body. Simple self-care strategies focus on maintaining comfort, movement, connection, hydration, and fresh air. With realizing my long held dream of working barefoot in yoga pants, stretching or resting between appointments is easier. My work space includes a stand-up desk close to a window and a full-spectrum lamp. I take advantage of telephone appointments to move freely and rest my eyes, book longer lunch breaks in the winter months for daylight walking dates with friends, and attend regular virtual meditation in real time with a caring group of people, We are all doing what we can to stay positive and well during these crazy times.

Future considerations Connecting over distance is definitely here to stay, in my line of work anyway. Learning how to better communicate in virtual spaces and over the phone will serve us all moving forward. I see the benefits of continuing to work remotely, in terms of convenience, accessibility, managing overhead costs, location freedom, and the potential for deeper connection than I ever expected in virtual spaces. I anticipate maintaining a hybrid model, integrating the benefits of both in-person and online life and work.

How do you find living and working over distance?

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