I miss people. I thrive off bouncing ideas off others. I miss having random conversations which then lead to ideas. I miss feeling relaxed in the proximity of actual humans. Video calls can be brilliant, and they can be overwhelming.
There are ways to make video calls not quite so terrible, and in some cases brilliant. I’ve compiled some of my thoughts about what has worked for me during 2020, in the hope there may be a thing that works for you, too.
Talking shapes thinking
We’ve been watching a lot of House recently. I mean the TV show, not the building that we’re watching it in. Although we’ve been watching a lot of that, too.
Greg House needs someone to argue with him. Someone to agree with him, someone to back him up. It reminds me of the fact that talking can help shape thinking. It certainly helps me.
When lockdown-1 lifted, and we met in a socially distanced pub, our conversation led to all sorts of brilliant ideas. Well, at least we thought they were at the time. Maybe it was the beer. But it certainly filled me with joy.
According to constructivist learning theory, people make meaning out of experience.
The reference may be dusty, but is from Bruner’s 1990 book “Acts of Meaning” which I learned about when I originally trained to become a teacher.
While they may not have the same weight as a face to face chat and a hug, it is possible to make meaningful experiences via the interweb.
Time to think a bit differently
Time to talk is important. And making time to pause and think is valuable too.
But if you’ve been spending all your time on back to back work calls (or haven’t spoken to anyone for a while) talking socially can feel daunting.
You could, as we all know, try going for a walk. If that feels like too much, having a lie-down, listening to music, or a podcast, or audio book can help. Particularly if you’ve developed a visual migraine from all that doom-scrolling.
Whenever I’ve listened to any of Mark Williams’ free guided meditations I always feel better. It’s one of my best habits, even though I have to remind myself to do it.
Reach out (and touch faith)
I can’t hear the phrase “reach out” without thinking of this conversation I had with Matt Ballantine:
— Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) March 13, 2018
Lockdown means I’ve finally found a way to listen to podcasts, as I’ve always got my headphones on. I’m enjoying Matt and Chris Weston’s WB-40 podcast. And, the corresponding WhatsApp group, nay, community is brilliant.
When I need to develop my thinking, or decompress, bouncing ideas off other people can be invaluable. Whether it’s via Slack, WhatsApp, a spontaneous call, SMS, or a voicenote.
I’ve also rediscovered a love of letters. Well, digitally-printed postcards. I signed up to Touchnote a while back and have a whole bunch of credits just waiting for me to use them.
Make your lockdown circle a little wider
In the past I have introduced people who may have something in common. Over brunch, at parties, meetings or conferences like Intranet Now.
How about bringing someone new to your next video call, or connect via WhatsApp? Maybe you have friends with kids of a similar age who might get on? Or like reading hard science fiction. Or are fans of imperial stouts. Or live in the same area. Or, well, they know *you*.
I’ve been thinking about the people I’ve not seen for ages. People who live further away – who I can now see more of as distance is meaningless.
People working on similar, but otherwise unrelated projects to me. People who I’d speak to in the office and have a good natter with around the coffee machine. Or even go for a coffee or lunch with, but haven’t been in touch with since. (Hi if you’re reading this!)
And the people who I either forget, or never knew the names of that I’d have a natter with on the way.
Join a virtual meet-up
There are lots of great (currently virtual) events and communities available on web apps like MeetUp and via EventBrite and Twitter. I’ve joined events which boost my creativity and help connect with like-minded people. I’ve particularly enjoyed participating in the NHS Make For Tomorrow programme.
In the game of lockdown life, who are your NPCs?
Who do you miss from the before times? Are there people you forgot you missed, until reading this now?
An NPC (non-player character) is someone who may not feature heavily in a game, but may have an influence in how it turns out. And can take on an important life of their own.
Andy the Talking Dog, from a game of Over the Edge I played in a few years ago, is exactly the sort of character I mean. His image weirdly persists in my brain.
Out-of-game, I miss the regulars at the pub (who I may know by face, if not name), I miss the conversations about art exhibitions in the sandwich shop near my old office, I miss chatting about the latest TV shows with people I don’t directly work with.
Some people, like John Callaghan, are brilliant at weaving stories and running RPGs. In his words, “the notes in the [surprisingly detailed] book are the start-point for the group to spring off from, and they change and evolve”. How about providing some notes, or starter questions, for your next call?
Think like a gamer on your next video call
Asking questions – especially ones that don’t highlight how little people have actually been up to recently, can help people escape.
Kinda like playing a role-playing game (RPG). In an RPG you have a group of people, essentially telling a story together, but you don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy some good old fashioned storytelling.
Video calls can feel a bit chaotic without someone “in charge” – although often someone will step in. Like a GM (Games Master).
Assign one or two people as hosts to help bring the best out of your participants!
You cannot overdress on the Orient Express
I recently ran an evening event which ended up lasting 5 hours. Five! It ended up feeling less like an RPG (or terribly long meeting) and more like an informal panel show, like Alan Davies’ “As Yet Untitled”.
I read once that “You cannot overdress on the Orient Express” – what better subject for night of virtual escapism? Can you picture yourself in this scene?
Ahead of the session I provided a short write up and found a video setting I liked to help get people in the mood. You could also prepare a playlist to share with people ahead of time, or during the event.
I found a suitable background image, wrangled with some green towels, a canvas and an easel to make an almost passable green screen on Zoom. (I’m amazed at how much better MS Teams is at substituting background images).
I donned my fave vintage jacket and played hostess, asking a few prompt questions which can also work in less elaborate set-ups.
If we were dining on the Orient Express (and money was obviously no object) what would you order off the menu? Where would we be going next?
Questions to ask in your next Zoom call
Which 3 actors would play you in a film of your life? As a child, younger and older adult. You can pick actors from any age. And if someone gets stuck, others can chip in with their suggestions and look-a-likes.
Desert Island Discs – what songs have a specific meaning for you, and why? We’ve played this within our household casting YouTube to the telly, but you could share playlists remotely.
Are there any films that have a special meaning for you? Are there any that you can personally relate to? What about movies that you go back to again and again?
Snacks! Have you discovered any good biscuits / crisps / snacks recently? Or made any recipes that you’re particularly proud of? Snacks feature heavily in pretty much every channel I’m part of right now, and probably rightly so.
Play actual games!
There are lots of resources available to help you connect with virtual or physical props.
I’ve been enjoying a virtual poker night where we use a combination of the PPPoker App and Jitsi for video calling (other apps are available). We play the game on one device, and see other players’ faces on another.
I’ve also seen (but not tried myself) setting up boardgames to play remotely via an elaborate webcam set-up. Gloomhaven works particularly well for this, apparently. As the GM, you need your players to print a few things out, and two webcams – one pointing at whoever has ownership of the board, one at your faces. But once set up, it can work as a regular session!
Board Game Arena has lots of licenced digitised boardgames available to play. And there are lots of board games which have great apps available to play on your mobile, too. I particularly like Ticket to Ride (although Splendor and Tokaido work well too).
If you’re lucky enough to live with other people, you could buy some physical boardgames, too. I’ve found that Azul, Roll for the Galaxy and Isle of Cats work particularly well with two players.
Board Game Geek has brilliant reviews of All of The Games (particularly useful if you spot any lurking in The Works and want to see if they’re any good).
My friend Glen runs The Mug and Meeple shop and game cafe in Gravesend, is very knowledgeable about games and gives great advice if you’re not sure what to buy.
And, If you want to lose several hours of your life / have a filler game then I can recommend the Doctor Who Thirteen game. It’s browser-based and fiendishly addictive. And you can play while listening to a podcast, too!
These are my experiences, how about yours?
This year, I’ve trained over 1,000 people on Microsoft Teams, played virtual host for ministerial webinars, participated in meet-ups and virtual coffees, and socialised on calls that have gone on for hours.
I’m in an incredibly privileged position in my lockdown set-up and am luckier than lots of people. I’ve also wanted to unplug every device under the sun and tried to shut myself away, only to start crawling the walls.
So, how are you doing? Do you have any tips to share?