I was astonished when I realized that videoconferencing has been around for more than 20 years. Yet, it was until the pandemic, that we found out how useful it can be. It is surprising how today, as you read these lines there are a lot of professional teams holding videoconferences that are one hundred per cent virtual. Oh, yes, we are thankful that there are so many options to gather while we are away. And that introduces a problem technology cannot fix. The issue regards us, specifically the fact that that we have not evolved socially — or even neurologically — to the point where we can bear much isolation.
Aristotle was right: first we are social beings and then we are rational. So much of our wellbeing, and by extension what makes us dynamic, is based on physical proximity. The elimination of that proximity for any period can be severely damaging. We need to feel that we are close to each other. One surprising casualty of social distancing? Laughter. Ask any schoolteacher that tries to spice the class with a joke, to see that that tool is not working, or question any leader to see if gagging is possible through a screen. According to Stewart Black, from Harvard University, normally people laugh about eighteen times per day. And most of that time we’re laughing with others.
Laughter is a link that bonds people. Try to remember when was the last time you had a funny thought alone and laughed at it out loud? Let us dig deeper: How often when you laugh and your friends laugh at something, is that something actually funny? It may surprise you, but most of the times we are laughing at things that are not as hilarious as they sound. So why do we laugh? Simple, we laugh because others laugh. Laughing is contagious.
We laugh because it is nice to do it with others. Something similar happens with yawning. If one person yawns, everyone starts yawning. Most people cannot avoid yawning or laughing when those around them do. Remember the times you were scolded by a teacher or a parent because you could not stop the laughter, and your siblings or friends followed the lead of merriment. Laughing in response to other people laughing is not just a behavioural phenomenon.
When we laugh, our body releases key chemicals. In fact, Black states that there are studies show that people can endure fifteen percent more pain simply by laughing for a few minutes beforehand. The overall health benefits of laughter and the neurochemicals involved include improved immune functioning, stress relief, increased tolerance for pain, improved cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, sense of safety, and improved mood. Laughter is also associated with higher motivation and productivity at work. Glee is such a good glue.
The seclusion we have imposed on ourselves to combat the pandemic is severely inhibiting social interaction. To make matters worse, the associated stress and fear we are experiencing alone is pushing our biochemicals in the wrong direction. It can result in weight gain, headaches, irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and high blood pressure. So, what can you do as a team leader to mitigate these effects? It is clear in today’s home-alone, virtual team world, that’s exactly what you should be doing: for your team members to stay healthy and productive, you need to get them to laugh more and stress less. Does that mean that you need to become a comedian? Not at all. It means that you need to nurture some laughter.
According to Professor Black there are some actions that we can take so that we can propel our teams happiness, that can turn out to be a good way to link, stay productive and united.
- Slow down. When virtual interaction, most leaders feel that they need to make every virtual interaction as fast and efficient as possible.If that is all people have, this is a mistake. In these times of isolation, an important part of a leader’s job is to connect and reconnect the team and not just get work done. Laughter is one of the best ways to keep a team emotionally connected. But you need to give it time and space, even if you must put off some of the actual work.
- Smile. People naturally look to the leader of a meeting for signals as to what is okay in terms of behavior, including permission to laugh. The key auditory cue is the pitch of your voice.
- Set the example. Because like a yawn, laughter sparks laughter, perhaps nothing is more powerful in generating some laughter in your team than laughing yourself. However, just as people can generally differentiate between genuine and fake smiles, they can tell the difference between a real and a forced laugh — which leads to the final recommendation.
- Get in the mood yourself. You need to start with your own chemistry ahead of any meeting. It’s easier to keep laughter if, ideally you get yourself laughing.
One day, we shall be able to get back to more natural social interactions. But it is very likely that even after the crisis is over, more people will work more often from home alone, which means the laughter issue is here to stay — because no matter how much better the technology advances, and the more it gets in our everyday life, social behaviour is part of our nature. In that fashion, leaders are going to have to get good at making laughter happen.
We think a lot about what the new normality —which sounds like an oxymoron— will be like, we reflect on the way things will be in the near future, but we have to understand that we have to reconcile with our human nature. Feelings are important, empathy and resilience are going to be the key factors of our days.
If we take this seriously, we can only think of a way of staying united while we are together again. Which better way to choose, than laughing all along the path in the meantime. And yes, I strongly believe that laughter can be a connecting thread while we are apart.