With many parts of Australia still in lockdown, connecting with others can feel increasingly challenging.
Whether video calls are stifling your usual banter with friends, or the problem is actually hearing them at all over a patchy internet connection, Zoom fatigue is real.
Fortunately, after 18 months of video conferences, virtual classes and online events, lessons have been learned when it comes to making digital connections feel a little less alienating – particularly by those who now run them for a living.
We’ve asked professionals at the coal face of the pivot-to-virtual to share their insights into solving some common video chat dilemmas.
What to do when … you have little kids
Tim Cuthell, a youth librarian at Casey Cardinia Libraries, recommends keeping video calls with kids interactive. Stories and songs are a great way to make that intimate connection. If you’re reading a story, he suggests bringing the book close to the screen so the child can see the pages.
Consider telling stories using your hands or props. Lots of songs and rhymes involving hand claps or hand movements (such as finger rhymes, like five little ducks) work really well on a screen. If you want to use a puppet, it doesn’t have to be bought, you can make your own using cardboard cutouts you move around the screen.
Cuthell says having fun with what you’ve got is one of the challenges of lockdown, and recommends activities like making a shaker with rice in a jar that kids can use to groove along.
For older kids, digital coding is a good activity, with Scratch and Python two languages you can learn for free at home. If they create something like a video game with newly acquired coding skills, it can be shown to family or friends with functions like share screen on Zoom.
For adults interacting with kids on Zoom, Cuthell advises “be prepared to laugh at yourself”. He says wearing bright colours, dressing up and having a disco, or playing around with filters and backgrounds are ways to make the online experience more fun.
He also recommends bringing the same level of energy as you would for doing an activity in person. “It’s about getting the energy up and not being put off by there being a distance between you.”
What to do when … you find video socially awkward
Brett Blewitt, from team building and event facilitators Masters of Fun, is well aware that digital catchups can quickly spiral. “If all you’re talking about is the word that won’t be named, you lose motivation to catch up with friends because you leave the conversation more anxious.”
His solution is to add a bit more structure. “When you put a game behind it, you’re moving away from talking about the obvious, which is the whole reason we’re on Zoom in the first place.”
Here are a few of Blewitt’s suggestions:
You can download online board games to play in a group, like Monopoly or code names, with websites like Horse Paste. Turning quizzes or crossword puzzles into group activities can also work.
Create an at-home MasterChef experience with your friends. Give everyone a core ingredient and 20 minutes to cook something with it. At the end of the time, everyone comes back to show what they’ve created and eat together.
Have a roster with friends and take turns each week running a 20-minute fitness class.
Blewitt says at the end of the day, “the most important thing is finding the impetus to have fun”.
What to do … for a special occasion
When it comes to organising celebrations from birthdays to baby showers, Joshua Mason Browne, a creative director at FCM Meetings and Events, recommends coming back to basics. He says despite being socially distanced, thinking about ways to connect over shared food, music and play are “simple things … that make us feel less stressed” and more “connected to one another”.
Before the event, Browne also says you can encourage a sense of occasion by designing a virtual background so everyone feels like they’re in the same room, or suggesting a theme everyone has to dress up for.
Food: Being able to share food and drink can be as simple as sharing a recipe or designing a cocktail that everyone prepares before the event. If all your guests are in the same city, you can also consider ordering everyone the same food to be delivered.
Music: Playing music over video calls is hard, because you end up losing the ability to communicate. That issue can be overcome by using an app everyone can tune into, like Spotify’s Group Session function. Have your guests collaborate on the playlist so everyone gets to hear the music they want. They can also add songs throughout the event like a jukebox.
Play: Organising game activities will depend on the group of people you’re catering for, but aim for any activity to be designed around collaboration. Browne recommends free gaming platform Kahoot because it offers the ability to personalise games, or play standard versions. For a baby shower, he recommends the game Who’s That Baby? where you have guests send through baby photos of themselves, and create a multiple choice competition to guess who each photo is during the party.
Finally, he suggests opening up the video chat an hour before the formal proceedings start. This gives early arrivals an informal moment to connect casually, or potentially cook and prepare together.
What to do … if your internet is really slow
Zoran Tasevski, the managing director of Technetics Consulting, says there are a couple of workarounds for joining video calls when you have a slow internet connection:
Option 1: Connect to a phone hotspot. “If you don’t have a 4G or 5G connection on your own phone, ask someone else who does to enable the hotspot on their smart phone and connect to it, which will allow you to wirelessly connect to the internet. Depending which area you’re in, if Telstra doesn’t have a strong 4G or 5G signal you can try another provider by asking someone else in the family if they have a different connection with Optus or Vodafone.”
Option 2: “Buy a 5G wifi hot spot device like this one ... Then you can connect your laptop or iPad wirelessly to it.”
Option 3: “Buy a data sim card from any provider that has good wireless internet coverage in your area and insert it into a wireless router like this one from TP-Link. Everyone in the house can connect to this wireless router and you can also take the wireless router with you anywhere. Sometimes it works faster than an NBN connection!”
Other ways to stay social instead
Stephanie Bendixsen, presenter and video games content creator, has a curated list of virtual games to play together with friends or family you can’t see in person.
Gartic Phone: “All you need is access to a web browser to play this free version of the telephone game. One person will be prompted to write out a sentence or idea, the next person will have to draw it. The third person will receive the image without the message and will have to interpret what the drawing is. You don’t need fantastic art skills, in fact it’s funnier if you don’t.”
Jackbox Party Pack: “Includes several kinds of word games, drawing games, trivia games, which are really well produced with fun graphics and voice dialogue. One person needs to own the game via video game platform Steam and everyone else who is participating just needs access to a browser.”
Among Us: “This game came out a couple of years ago, but became really popular in the last 12 months because of live streaming, people saw how fun and social it is. It’s a deception-based game where you play astronauts trying to repair a ship, but two unknown players are trying to sabotage the effort. It’s fun because it’s discussion-based, you watch people trying to keep a straight face when they’re lying to their friends or sometimes people sound guilty when they’re not. Everyone does need to own the game.”
Fall Guys: “Can be played on PC or console, and is fun for everyone, even kids. In a candy world aesthetic, you play a jellybean thrown into an obstacle course. It’s very simple but very funny and chaotic.”