The past year has seen us become more isolated than ever before. With multiple national lockdowns and stay-at-home orders issued, we’ve ended up spending most of our time within the same four walls. Whether we’ve worked or socialised from home, we’ve been far away from the people we know and love.

Though it’s often criticised for damaging real-life relationships and interactions, technology has replicated some of the experiences we’ve missed out on. Businesses have hosted virtual meetings and conferences, we’ve taken part in Zoom pub nights, and our favourite performers held virtual gigs. Of course, this technology can’t replicate some of our in-person experiences. But imagine how much more we’d have struggled without these digital options.

We’re starting to slowly get back to some level of normality with a roadmap for exiting lockdown set out by the government. But this doesn’t mean we need to completely give up on our virtual contact. Here are the ways tech has helped bring us closer together throughout the pandemic and how we can make the most of it moving forward.

Business collaboration tools recreate the in-office feeling

Virtual meeting tools had already been utilised by businesses that had multiple offices or existing home-based employees. These tools surged in usage, however, when office workers were instructed to work from home in March 2020. Zoom saw its profits increase by 326% in 2020, while Microsoft saw a huge 700% profit increase from Teams.

These communication tools connected at-home employees, bringing an essential level of togetherness when people were physically apart. This replication of in-person meetings was essential, as a number of studies performed by psychologist Dr Albert Mehrabian have shown that 55% of any message is conveyed through non-verbal elements. Video meetings mean these critical non-verbal communications are not missed, allowing your people to communicate as effectively as they would if they were in the office together.

As employees return to the office, don’t let these powerful tools gather virtual dust. According to a recent survey by Chris Herd, 90% of employees who have been working remotely during the pandemic don’t ever want to go back to the office full-time. Leading businesses including Lloyds PLC and HSBC are committing to a hybrid model of office and home-based working.

With such a huge proportion of employees demanding a blend of remote and onsite working, our use of video conferencing tools is set to stay. They can help your home-workers feel more connected to colleagues in the office. If your office hosts weekly business updates or social events, why not dial your remote workers in? You can connect your PCs and video calls to digital signage screens in the office to create that together feeling.

Socialising goes virtual

We’ll forever remember 2020 as the year of virtual pub quizzes. These remote events soared in popularity when our favourite watering holes first closed their doors in March 2020. Even celebrities got in on the fun, with Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry, and Helen Mirren, amongst others, hosting events.

While Zoom pub nights stole the headlines, it wasn’t only our after-work drinks that were digitised. Facebook Portal pushed itself as a solution to disallowed family gatherings with a forceful advertising campaign in 2020. But however we kept in touch with our loved ones, we relied on technology to stay close to them.

While many of us will be itching to get back to in-person socialising, there is still a place in our lives for digital hangouts. For those of us with family and friends who live far away, video calls are the perfect way to replicate that in-person catch-up over a coffee or a pint. If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it was how important our relationships are, no matter the physical distance.

Digital classrooms become the norm

One of the biggest changes we experienced was the shift to home learning. For those who had already undertaken distance or online learning, this was nothing new. Many businesses were already utilising online learning for their employees’ continued professional development. But the majority of school, college, and university education was still held in person.

Virtual education for younger children won’t remain in the long term, but the pandemic highlighted the benefits of online learning for older students and employees. Studies show that e-learning increases information retention by between 25–60%. Meanwhile, in-person training increases retention by only 8–10%.

For higher education, 67% of students said their remote education experience was as expected or better than expected during the pandemic in a Citrix survey. However, we still have a way to go to change long-held perceptions of the value of education. Only 25% of those students felt their course was offering them value for money.

There’s a strong social aspect associated with university life, and the pandemic has taken much of this away from students. An ONS survey found that 86% of university students were dissatisfied with their experience because of limited opportunities for social activities. Meanwhile, 84% cited the inability to meet other students as a particular pain.

UNESCO has made nine recommendations for adapting education worldwide following the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these recommendations is to make learning technologies more accessible to both teachers and students. While primarily focused on formal education, this also applies to learning in the workplace. Blending in-person and online training for all types of learning will ensure a well-rounded experience.

We’ve found ourselves isolated from friends, family, partners, and colleagues in the past year in a way we’ve never experienced before. As a result, we turned to digital methods of communication. Technology has helped us to strengthen our relationships, our business communication, and even our education in the past year. As we emerge from what is hopefully the final national lockdown, we can blend our physical and virtual communication to make sure we never feel isolated like this again.

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