Over the past few months, some of us were fortunate to be able to reconnect in person, reuniting with our loved ones, working together with our colleagues, meeting with students and donors face to face. We touched, felt and savored the taste of our lives again.
Now, almost surreally, we find ourselves in a variant induced déjà vu, with its impending social isolation and return to virtual reality. We are Zoomed out; the novelty of online engagement has dissipated and our despair at the thought of going back to an online life and experiencing a repeat of the past 18 months even outweighs our dread of contracting the virus.
In a sense, Zoom is like a Microwave. A microwave cooks our food conveniently fast and the result is fairly tasty. The appliance serves us well but cannot provide the same culinary experience as a “real” oven-cooked meal. Zoom can bring a global team into one meeting room and save us a commute to the office. Yet we yearn for the handshake and the aromas and flavors that can only be experienced when we are actually together.
We may be entering our next phase with a sense of indifference or fatigue, lingering on the negative and often frustrating return to online spaces. But we should be mindful that for many around the world, the virtual reality is all they have right now, whether due to enforced isolation as the virus rages or for those at high risk in our communities including the immunocompromised, elderly and people with disabilities. There are even those who don’t have access to online connectivity at all.
As we start thinking about the upcoming year, perhaps we should be asking what chidush, (new insights) can we bring to our audiences as we re-embrace a virtual and hybrid reality. How can the microwave analogy enlighten us?
First, set the right expectations
Our expectations from microwaves are clear. We know what they offer us and although many microwaved meals are accompanied by a pinch of guilt, we understand the value this appliance has in our lives. It gives us time for other things. We hope our meal is sufficiently nutritious and, for the most part, we are satiated. We don’t expect a microwave to replace the oven or to provide a gourmet meal and we don’t moan about it. Zoom can be breathtaking in its technological ability but is also limited. We might complain but we are fully aware of what it empowers us to do. It’s time we start acknowledging what it can offer and not be despondent about its limits.
Second, focus on substance, not features
We need to realize that the virtual platforms at our disposal are here for the long haul, not only because of the pandemic, but because they have something to offer that we may want to hold onto. We all know how to set a virtual background, use the chat function, how to break people into breakout rooms. We travel the world without leaving our desks. These features can be exciting but their luster fades without having meaningful impact.
Preparing a home cooked meal or arranging for an in-person experience entails taking the time to get the right ingredients, find the winning combination of seasonings and be both present and active. Similarly, the chidush regarding virtual platforms should be about us, the users, not about the new trends that we wait for the tech companies to develop with eager anticipation. We need to figure out how to actually utilize the engaging aspects of these platforms, imagine what a truly meaningful virtual experience could look like and think about how to build from one virtual experience to the next.
It is time for us to be proactive and intentional and to focus on the substance that we offer the platforms. We need to take an honest look at our expertise and knowledge, at the depth we bring to these experiences and give real thought to the necessity, structure and frequency of our programs. Simply put —what works and what doesn’t?
Third, spiral up
Judaism teaches us how to operate in a cyclical motion: Next week we will enter yet another Torah reading cycle. While the text remains constant, we do not. We dialogue continually with the text. As we revisit each text, it revisits us and our insights build on each other. This ongoing discourse allows us to glean new learnings and find different interpretations and meaning in words that have remained the same for generations. Likewise, the pandemic is forcing us to confront the interplay between virtual platforms and in-person interactions. That requires us to decipher how these modalities can work in synergy, in service of, rather than in place of each other. That synergy will enable us to spiral up, learning new lessons from them as we evolve and move forward in relationship with them.
Whatever we may have achieved last year, we all want to do better this year. The platforms might remain the same, but we should not remain stagnant. We can be proactive players in setting new trends and re-defining the rules. Let’s embrace this metaphor as an opportunity for renewal, for leadership, and growth.
This post was co-authored by Alexandra Shklar and Stephen Markowitz. Alexandra Shklar is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Stephen Markowitz is an Organizational Consultant, Jewish Educator, and founder of Markowitz Consulting.