Target Physical, Not Social, Distancing

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Nearly every country is calling for social distancing, which is the term we often use for the most powerful tool we have to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus but I believe this is actually a misnomer. Social distancing suggests separating ourselves from other humans. I argue that is the worst thing we can do. We should be physically distancing from others, not social distancing. With effective and cost-efficient video and collaboration, we can be socially closer than ever before while helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Physical Distancing Guidelines

The term social distancing has been around considerably longer than the current coronavirus pandemic. As early as 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) described social distancing as "keeping at least an arm's length distance from others, [and] minimising gatherings." When combined with good respiratory hygiene and hand washing it is considered to be the most feasible way to reduce or delay a pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have described social distancing as a set of "methods for reducing frequency and closeness of contact between people in order to decrease the risk of transmission of disease." Both descriptions embody separation as the best means of reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Another term receiving a lot of attention these days is ‘flattening the curve.’ This looks at infection rates graphically. A steeper curve means a faster rate of infection. A flatter curve represents a slower rate of infection. By attaining a slower rate of infection, it is believed we reduce overburdening health care systems which then translates into turning away fewer patients. Social distancing is deemed to be the leading effort to flatten the curve.

Dr. Tom Inglesby is the Director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He writes on Twitter this week “The Administration today made the important right decision to extend social distancing guidelines. It’s worth underscoring why those measures are so critical and considering the conditions in which they might be able to be relaxed safely sometime in the future.” He went on to say, “Large scale social distancing measures – no gatherings >10, telecommuting + closure of non-essential business, closed schools + universities, only leave home for a highly compelling reason – are the strongest tools we have to slow the spread of COVID in the US.”

The recurring theme in Dr. Inglesby’s comments is social distancing is absolutely necessary. Just today, the Whitehouse announced plans to extend social distancing rules in the US to at least the end of April and likely well into May. No matter what source of news you are viewing or trying to avoid these days the words social distancing are almost certainly being mentioned. The mere utterance evokes a mental picture of a six-foot bubble around each of us.

Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

If we take those words literally, we create far more damage to the world than just the catastrophic health issues of COVID-19. We will build barriers within society. We put distance between us and our support networks at a time when we need them the most. Social distancing is a recipe for loneliness and loss. We cannot afford to lose anymore. We need to embrace others, not physically but socially. This can be done with solutions like 8x8 Video Meetings, allowing us to see others more often. Messaging to our groups and directly to each other are the right tools to combat the distance that is being established all around us.

Social distancing often refers to being six feet away from other people. “There’s no magic number. But, the odds of breathing in infected, aerosolised particles drops as a function of distance from the person who is coughing or sneezing. Six feet is an arbitrary distance, but it’s a good rule of thumb,” said Dr. Kenneth Tyler, Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the department’s Louise Baum Endowed Professor. Dictionary.com defines the word ‘social’ as “living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation.” That definition hinges on companionship and community, two critical elements that don’t have to be halted due to distance. The word ‘physical’ is defined as “of or relating to the body, of or relating to that which is material.” This is where distancing belongs, in the material world. Physical gives a measurable set of locations between two bodies. This is where putting space between us will save lives during the pandemic. So, in short, physical distancing, yes. Social distancing, no.

Creating Community During Quarantine

8x8 Video Meetings is available as part of the paid suite of cloud communication and collaboration services from 8x8. It is integrated into every package offered. It is also available from 8x8.vc through a browser. This is a free version. It doesn’t require a download. It doesn’t require a credit card. It doesn’t even make you provide your personal information. It is free of the commitments and restrictions other popular video companies are placing on users. 8x8 Video Meetings is the perfect tool to overcome the social distance physical distancing is causing.

The people I am interacting with today are not the same I interacted with before the pandemic. The people have changed for sure, but that’s not what I am referring to. The who has changed. Let me give an example, my workday often consisted of pretty much only seeing the people nearest my desk and those I might pass in the hallways of my building. Now, I join virtual meetings for nearly everything. As I typically join early, I instantly start talking to whoever is in the virtual room. It would be socially inappropriate not to. We connect, and as more join in, the conversation evolves and then the meeting begins. Setting my 8x8 Video Meetings to tile mode, I see all the faces of my co-workers. In this format, I have the benefit of seeing everyone’s reactions to presentations and announcements. I know if people got what was being said or if reinforcing a concept is needed. It is very reactive and positive.

All Together Online

Virtual Happy Hours. Prior to the pandemic, I can honestly say I never attended one or thought they held any value. Man, was I wrong. I have laughed, heard great gossip and had fun since I started embracing them. The last one I attended was themed. A handful of co-workers got dressed up in 80s nostalgic ware and we talked about our first, worst and best concert experiences. We added the required 80s soundtrack and even sang along. Luckily, I don’t think there is a video recording of that.

Virtual Happy Hours have a way of adding instant visibility to a social gathering. You don’t have to search for a room for people to connect with. You can see everyone. Conversations are made more public and with that more inclusive. This differs quite dramatically from physical happy hours.

The point is, through Video Meetings I am attending events I probably wouldn’t have made time for. I can be social with little effort or prep work.

Gen Z's Embracing Video Chat

Enough of a 45-year old’s opinion, I interviewed my teenage son to get his take on distancing social distancing. I first asked if his school interactions have changed since the shelter-in-place started. He explained, “I am working in teams and pairs much more so than during regular school.” He also added, “I’m working with more of the class, people I probably wouldn’t have, had this situation not happened.” But what about the level of education, I asked?

“During online classroom sessions we are actually more concentrated with fewer side conversations breaking out,” he replied. This led to identifying the effects of ‘social proximity.' Those closest to you in the classroom often become your localised social network. With that, inside jokes and freedom to voice opinions emerge. This creates inherent problems for the teacher, as these groups feel the confidence to talk amongst themselves, pass notes, etc. It creates distractions and hurts the learning environment, even if it’s the social norm. Video Meetings are changing this. When my son’s teachers are giving lectures, they mute all the students. Teachers are now fully aware if personal chats or distractions are occurring. My son tells me his teachers force each student to keep their video on, to ensure they are looking eyes forward and their hands are not typing on keyboards or mobile devices. Tile view gives the teacher far more visibility than standing in front of rows of students blocking those in the back.

School is not the only environment that has adopted Video Meetings. My son’s youth organisations have gone completely virtual. “We are having more frequent meetings because travel and logistics have all been removed from the equation,” states my teenage son. With more meetings my son is reconnecting with more people. At social gatherings, my son would interact with only a handful of people, those closest to his physical position. If someone is on the opposite side of the room blocked by layers of people you won’t see or interact with them.

Not so with Video Meetings. Everyone is visible and you can talk with them or personalise things with one-to-one private messaging. Social expansion, not distancing has been the result for my son.

Getting Social with 8x8 Video Meetings

Streaming watch parties are becoming the norm. This simple activity uses two browser windows, one with a streaming channel, like Netflix or Amazon Prime and the other using Video Meetings. This is not just being done by young people, either. This is now a weekly ritual with my friends. We use our laptops, Smart TVs, tablets, phones it doesn’t matter – anything goes. It typically starts with us rapid-fire suggesting show or movie ideas. We’ve recently done a wave of sci-fi flops. Choosing a winner is actually easy. We use the hand raise option to vote, and voilà we all see the favoured selection. We’ll do a countdown and then all start streaming at the same time. Despite physical and location distances, we really feel like we are in the same place. Picture Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax. Friends watch a common streaming service at the same time and comment, heckle and laugh their way through the content. The worse the movie, the better the experience.

Gaming with others isn’t new, but doing it over Video Meetings is. Pairing with Video Meetings adds in a whole new dimension. Participant limits go away. Time limits go away. The best part is this allows every game to become a spectator sport. My 10-year old son has been using gaming over Video Meetings on his Chromebook to reconnect with his friends. Normally these would happen in person during a weekend. They would only happen at best, once or twice a month. These are now happening one to two times a week. My son and his friends will invite a group of classmates to unwind after school. They love it. The hardest part is getting my son to sign-off. This usually requires some threat of no more group gaming to trigger the desired behaviour. My favourite utterance from my son has been “Dad, this is way better than Zoom. I was on instantly and didn’t have to restart after forty minutes.”

The major take-away from this blog post is terms matter. Don’t call staying six feet away from each other social distancing. That term is inaccurate and dangerous. Keeping apart to avoid breathing in infected, aerosolised particle drops, is best referred to as physical distancing. The two are not interchangeable. Social is companionship and community. Something we desperately need, now more than ever. COVID-19, novel coronavirus, pandemic, shelter-in-place are currently synonymous with our daily reality.

We, as people, need to be both descriptive and prescriptive. 8x8 Video Meetings is the tool to keep us together. We need to be more engaged than ever. We need to embrace socialisation. We need to keep learning in virtual classrooms. We need to watch movies together. We need to play more games with friends. We need to see people we typically don’t. We need to sing in Virtual Happy Hours. We need to be social.

Jeff Fox

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Jeff Fox is the Director of Global Promotions & Go To Market for 8x8. He comes from a diverse background in software development, product marketing, and product development. He has filed for over 15 patents from camping equipment to lasers. He was most recently at Embarcadero Technologies (formerly Borland). He is married with two children and lives in San Jose. He is a music, movies, and pop culture enthusiast.

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