All Those Zoom Meetings May Boost Connection and Curb Loneliness

Americans are lonelier than ever—a problem the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated. Could interactions on platforms like Zoom and Twitch come close to replicating the real-life contact people crave?

New research suggests that’s more likely to happen if the virtual experiences truly engage people on screen. Harvard Business School’s Amit Goldenberg worked with seven other researchers, including Airbnb executives, to evaluate online strategies for mitigating loneliness. Goldenberg’s findings offer insights for managers and employees as they navigate the inevitable post-honeymoon period of remote work.

“There’s a huge value to real interactions even if they are occurring virtually,” says Goldenberg, who is a psychologist by training and an assistant professor at HBS.

To test online experiences, the group took advantage of two Airbnb presentations by an astronomer about space—one interactive and one pre-recorded—and examined how happy and connected people felt before and after the videos. Those who participated in the live experience felt much less lonely, although that bump didn’t last. The team shared their findings, Social Interactivity in Live Video Experiences Reduces Loneliness, in the March edition of the journal Frontiers in Digital Health.

The loneliness epidemic

Even before the pandemic’s social distancing requirements isolated people in their homes, one January 2020 study found that three in five Americans considered themselves lonely.

Loneliness can lead to a host of health problems, including depression and social anxiety, which can impact wellbeing and productivity at work. In fact, in 2017 Harvard Business Review article, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared that “a loneliness epidemic” was among the biggest problems facing the workplace.

Since then, mental health experts have questioned whether the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, as some workers may have fewer social connections now that they’re working from home. “That may be good in some respects, cutting down on people’s commutes and allowing them to better care for their children,” says Goldenberg, “but it also might contribute to loneliness, as people are more isolated than ever before.”

Social isolation and loneliness aren’t necessarily the same thing: Just because someone is physically distant from people doesn’t mean they will experience the subjective feeling of loneliness. But the two do tend to go hand in hand, Goldenberg says.

The stars look very different

To see if they could break that connection and overcome the tendency to feel lonely while alone, the researchers collaborated with Airbnb, an online marketplace for rental properties. They created an Airbnb experience called “Learn About Space with an Astronomer,” a virtual tour hosted by a science expert. Since the pandemic curtailed travel, Airbnb had pioneered a concept called Online Experiences to let would-be travelers experience some tourism activities, like interactive walking tours and cooking shows.

As part of the study, the researchers recruited about 250 participants to view a video on outer space. Unbeknownst to participants, however, there were actually two versions of the presentation. One was a prerecorded video in which the astronomer answered scripted questions. The other allowed participants to ask questions and see other people also interacting with the presenter.

The live experience included interactions with six to 12 strangers. Before watching the video, participants took a survey that measured their loneliness, as well as their feelings of connectedness and positive affect, or happiness. They took the same survey directly after the experience, as well as four weeks later.

On all of the measures, the researchers found a marked difference before and after the presentation between those who had the passive experience versus those who had the interactive one.

“Directly after the interactive experience, people’s feelings of connectedness and positive affect increased, while loneliness decreased, and the effects were quite strong,” Goldenberg says.

One interesting twist: Many participants in the passive presentation later said that they believed it was actually a live presentation, not realizing it had been prerecorded. And yet, they didn’t feel any less lonely after viewing it.

“There is something about the reactions from the audience and the interaction that impacts people over and above just watching a live session,” Goldenberg says.

However, the positive glow that comes even from a live online interaction doesn’t last. Four weeks later, survey results showed all of the effects disappeared for both groups, which points to the need for regular interactions to keep loneliness at bay, Goldenberg says.

The team included Benjamin Kaveladze of the University of California, Irvine; Robert Morris, Melissa Sandgren, and Judd Antin of Airbnb; Rosa Victoria Dimitrova-Gammeltoft of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences; James Gross of Stanford University; and Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

The joy of meetings

The results are good news for businesses implementing work-from-home policies, suggesting that workers can combat loneliness by engaging in virtual activities without having to physically come into the office. On the other hand, prerecorded video content may not cut it.

“As we make the transition from real life to virtual, some have basically assumed that the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous video isn’t important because it’s all online,” Goldenberg says. “This study shows that it does matter—and that it can have a big effect.”

Goldenberg says it’s important for managers in workplaces and teachers of online classes to hold synchronous meetings, rather than merely conversations over email or Slack. “Even if the decision will be the same, there is some value to it, which is people’s wellbeing,” he says.

Also, he notes, a meeting isn’t useful if it merely consists of a manager talking at employees. Instead, meeting facilitators should strive to make the gathering interactive, soliciting feedback from participants or sending people into breakout groups for discussions with colleagues, Goldenberg says.

While not everyone loves meetings, and some employees may believe they prefer to interact asynchronously, encouraging employees to regularly attend virtual meetings with colleagues might actually be better for them, he says.

“Even if people wouldn’t necessarily choose to do them,” he says, “they may be a useful way to reduce loneliness and improve their wellbeing and productivity.”

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