5 Ways to Bring Your Whole Self to Hybrid Working
By Dan Nixon, guest contributor
Between the busyness of our work lives and shifts towards flexible and hybrid working patterns, the ability to remain grounded, and to be fully present, becomes ever more challenging. Add to this the bottomless newsfeeds on our phones and the blurring of home/work boundaries, and it can easily feel as though our lives become a series of “to-do list” tasks and back-to-back meetings, with any spaces in between quickly filled with emails and other updates.
All of this can lead to a fragmented day-to-day experience and one in which we consume each other in “bits and pieces,” in the words of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociology professor, Sherry Turkle.
In this context, how can we show up from a place of presence? In particular, how can we ground ourselves in an embodied awareness and let this be the starting point for all our workplace interactions?
1. Coming to the life of the body
Centering ourselves around bodily sensations is a powerful way to ground ourselves in what is often a cerebral work environment. By slowing down and taking a few deep breaths, noticing how these feel in the body, we find an antidote to the experience of emails and spreadsheets, of frameworks and strategies that tend to keep us “in our heads.” This is especially true when we work from home in a static setting.
In fact, mindfulness always involves “coming to the life of the body,” according to the meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield. Even when we pay attention to thoughts, we can do so with an awareness of the body’s “being there” in the background. “Through awareness of the body,” Kornfield writes, “we remember who we really are.”
The French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, came to a similar conclusion: before all else, he wrote, we can see ourselves as living, pulsing, embodied beings. He was interested in the “lived body” through which we each touch and feel and move – the body we inhabit rather than merely have. Whatever we’re doing, the lived body is always there for us: positioning itself, bringing things into focus, interacting with our environment. It paves the way for whatever we consciously go on to think, say, or do.
As we reflect on what it means to “show up” at work, then, we can start by taking our embodiment as our primary entry point into our workplace interactions, online and offline alike.
2. Practicing embodied presence with colleagues
One way to bring an embodied presence into our work lives is to practice mindfulness with colleagues – online or in-person. Pausing to observe the experience of the breath as we feel it, letting go of judgments and evaluations, can serve as a counterbalance to the focus on agendas, decisions, and actions that dominate work meetings.
It could be as simple as a one-minute breathing space for people to quietly “arrive” at the start of a meeting, perhaps taking a few slow breaths into the belly and noticing the gentle rise and fall of the abdomen. Or it could be getting together for a group mindfulness practice: a 15-minute body scan at the start of the day, for instance, or a longer meditation towards the end of the week. There are even meditation exercises, such as Insight Dialogue, which explicitly bring the people we’re with into the practice.
Aside from formal practice, every meeting is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. We can give our full attention to the people in the room (physical or virtual), paying close attention not only to the words that are being spoken but all the non-verbal cues and gestures. The person speaking can be the main “anchor” for our attention, although from time to time we can notice what’s going on in our own body and mind, thus cultivating the ability to hold an inner and outer awareness at the same time.
Exercises like this invite us to become really curious about all that’s being communicated. They draw us into the space between ourselves and our colleagues, what Merleau-Ponty called the “interbody space” between our living, breathing bodies, alive with gestures and expressions, which he saw as the basis for our entire social world.
3. The expressiveness of the human face
“The human face is the universal language,” the photographer Dorothea Lange once remarked. “The same expressions are readable, understandable all over.” At the start of your next video meeting, you might try a simple “check-in” exercise: invite everyone to take a few moments to simply notice who’s there, to notice the faces of the colleagues gathered there.
Throughout the meeting, pay close attention to the faces of those you engage with: the subtle cues and emotions conveyed, but also the uniqueness of each face. Consider, too, how you are showing up when others are speaking; can your gestures help feedback to the speaker that you’re listening, or what you’re feeling? Are there ways to support your colleagues? (I’m reminded of Victor Borge’s aphorism: “a smile is the shortest distance between two people”).
For larger online meetings, the overall group “presence” will be higher when there is variation in who is doing the talking – variation in which faces everyone sees. Asking colleagues to contribute by unmuting themselves, rather than simply via the “Chat,” can help. Breakout Rooms, meanwhile, offer a great way to get people to connect with each other in a more intimate way.
4. The living body vs. the 3D avatar
This leads us to a deeper question about what it means to see each other in the world of flexible and hybrid working. Tech companies like Microsoft and Meta are selling the idea of working in the metaverse, which involves putting on headsets to enter into a virtual world where we show up and interact as 3D avatars of ourselves, customized to our own choosing.
It’s presented as an immersive experience. Entering the “virtual office,” you’ll be able to walk, talk, and shake hands, as well as “Like” and comment on what’s being shared in the meeting. All of this is said to make meetings “more engaging;” tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg emphasize, in particular, the “feeling of presence” that you’ll get when you meet someone in the metaverse. You’ll feel like you’re right there in the same room, he says. “You’ll see their facial expressions... you’ll see their body language.”
But is this really true? What you will actually see is your colleague’s avatar, which is modeled using Artificial Intelligence techniques. While it’s true that sensors will track your colleague’s body movements and this will feed into what you see, the fact remains that every facial expression and hand gesture in the metaverse is ultimately generated using complex algorithms. Actual eye contact, meanwhile, is missing altogether.
This is not to say we shouldn’t experiment with this virtual office set-up. But if we want to show up as our whole, embodied selves, and really take in the nuances of our colleagues’ bodily expressions and gestures, then we should be clear about what different technologies can – and cannot – do. Rather than the “feeling of presence” that Zuckerberg speaks of, when leaders of organizations consider how staff can inhabit a shared space in the emerging work environment, they may do well to place mindfulness – embodied presence – at the center of their organizational culture instead.
5. Honoring the spaces in between
Going from meeting to meeting without a break, and not having a sense of space within a particular meeting, can make our workdays feel like a series of disjointed events. To reclaim a sense of wholeness in ourselves, and in order to receive each other more wholly, we can look at ways to create more space throughout the day. Between tasks, take a moment to reconnect with the movement of the breath, the tingling in the hands, or the sensations in the soles of your feet, as a way to resource yourself in the here and now of your embodied being.
We can also honor the transitions into and out of online meetings. For important team meetings, for example, you might invite each person to share how they are feeling, or what they are carrying emotionally, for one minute at the start. Then before closing the meeting, allow time to go around again, letting each person share their key reflections or take-aways.
Finally, as we consider our options for showing up in a way that is authentic and whole, we can reflect on what is special about spending time in a shared physical space with colleagues. There are the obvious benefits of things we can do together, such as in-person meetings or going for lunch. Less visible are things like informal learning or the boost to innovation from serendipitous encounters – the fabled “water cooler chat.”
But there are still subtler gifts of sharing a physical space. Spending time together regularly – week in, week out – we gradually learn each other’s idiosyncrasies and have shared experiences different from what is possible via remote working. Or consider the special quality of direct eye contact, something which we only ever approximate via Zoom calls (if I’m looking directly at the camera then I’m not looking directly at your eyes, and vice versa).
Understanding how we show up
Of course, the pros and cons of in-person versus virtual working will vary by organization, team, and individual. But factoring in the subtler qualities of seeing someone face to face, we can reflect on how much in-person contact we get, week to week, and whether this nourishes our relationships sufficiently. Leaders can also think about how much access to in-person interaction different members of the organization get, and what role everyone can play to support one another and the whole network of relationships.
More than anything, then, we can treat how we show up as something that is always deserving of our attention. Speaking of the human focus of her photography, Dorothea Lange remarked that “it came to me that what I had to do was to take pictures and concentrate on people, only people, all kinds of people.” Bringing awareness to our sensitive, living bodies, and the breathing space between us, we can bring our focus back, again and again, to rest on the people, all kinds of people, that we interact with every day.
Dan Nixon is an author and researcher who teaches mindfulness to senior leaders in organizations with Potential Project. He also co-leads the Digital Ego Project for Perspectiva and is a senior researcher at The Mindfulness Initiative. Previously, Dan spent a decade at the Bank of England, where his essays on "mindful economics" and "the crisis of attention" received media coverage in the BBC, Guardian, Vox, Wall Street Journal, Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, and The Economist.