The water cooler: high-level conversation starters that’ll rule the break room

Posted on September 30, 2020 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Zoom fatigue is a real thing

Video calls are here to stay. Here’s how to make them better

You’re coming out of your work Zoom meeting like a champ, having laid out all the ways you made progress last week and what you’re aiming for this week. In any other situation you’d be pouring another coffee, ready to get started.

But you’re completely drained. And it’s only 10 a.m.

You are definitely not alone, says St. John’s psychologist Janine Hubbard. In fact, she’s right there with you. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Atlantic Canada she, like many Canadian office workers, also had to pivot to video. Normally, she schedules back-to-back in-person appointments in her office—she prefers them that way—but she quickly found that with video calls, that just wasn’t possible.

“I’d finish and I’d just be wrung out and exhausted, going, ‘What on earth is going on?’ So being the nerdy psychologist that I am, I went and tried to research it,” she says. “And the more I dug into it, Zoom fatigue—and it applies to all the platforms—Zoom fatigue is real!”

There’s a lot going on in a group video call that we aren’t used to and it takes a genuine toll, she says. First there’s the overwhelming compulsion to constantly watch yourself on screen. It makes you hyper-aware of your mannerisms and gestures, of what we look like and even what your house in the background might be saying about you. “When you’re constantly staring at yourself and all of your behaviours, you’re kind of feeling like you need to be on your best behaviour all the time,” she says. “It takes a huge amount of focus and attention and concentration.”

While you’re trying to look away from your own face, you’re also often trying to ignore the dings and woops of email and message notifications. Giving in and checking them divides your attention even further, she says. 

In a normal meeting, you can move your eyes away from your coworkers’ faces and doodle a bit, or walk to the water cooler in the corner—everybody knows you’re still engaged. “You’re not staring in the face of eight of 12 people for an hour, trying to make eye contact,” Hubbard says. But you are in a Zoom call. And as Hubbard says, “that’s just not a normal dynamic.” 

So how can we improve things? As a group, it’s good to lay out the etiquette and expectations before the meeting begins, Hubbad says. For example, if it’s okay for people to turn off their video to give their eyes a break, say so. Plan breaks in the meeting for participants, and encourage everyone to stand up, stretch and look away from screens, she says. And definitely schedule breaks for yourself between meetings.

Hubbard also recommends closing any tabs that will ping with message notifications, and getting rid of any other device that may do the same. 

And embrace the good—there’s lots of it. At first Hubbard herself was skeptical about holding therapy sessions via video calls. Now that she’s figured out how to best use the tool, she’s a believer. “It has allowed a lot more flexibility in terms of me being able to meet with people’s schedules. It certainly allowed for a lot of geographic opening up in terms of making sure there’s access to people for services in more rural and remote communities … So I think moving forward, at least for myself, telehealth services will remain a portion of what I offer.”

You look fabulous darling

Here are a few pro tips on setting up a video call so you look your best, from St. John’s, N.L. filmmaker and cinematographer Lian Morrisson. Light is everything: natural diffused light is best—easy in foggy places like St. John’s—but overall, if you can, aim for natural light from a window. Just make sure you’re facing the window, instead of having it behind you. If that’s not available, light yourself from the front (but not too harshly) and try not to mix lighting colours or types. Set up your shot: It’s nice to have a few things in the background, like plants or art, but you don’t want to overload it. You also want a good amount of space between you and any walls behind you, otherwise you’ll have a mug shot vibe. You also want to be sure you’re framing yourself so you’re not too close to the camera, and so you’re not looking down or up at the camera—you want to be eye level with your screen. (And, hey, if you’re using Zoom, there’s a Touch up My Appearance option in Video Settings that acts like a very mild Snapchat filter!)


Working from home has changed our lives—and the real estate market

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. At least it was for Matt Honsberger, a broker with Royal LePage Atlantic. As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices, schools and stores across Atlantic Canada, Honsberger and his team worried all the normal spring real estate activity would be cancelled. Instead, it seems to have been delayed. In fact, the pandemic is driving major sales and shifts in the regional housing market.

“Agents are currently out, showing lots of homes, listing lots of homes, all the stuff we normally are doing in April and June,” Honsberger says. “We’re still quite hopeful that despite the fact that we saw pretty significant drops in terms of volume for May and June, that it’s now going to recover.” Heck, there was even a record-breaking number of sales in Nova Scotia this June, he says. In particular, there’s a real shortage of homes for sale in Halifax, he says, carrying on a trend that’s been building for just over a year. Moncton’s market is also hot and Honsberger expects a similar crunch there: in mid-July, more than 400 homes in the city had sold that month, but only 240 new listings had gone up. “You’re gonna run out of inventory more quickly if you continue with that pace,” he says. 

Demand is outstripping supply in most Atlantic Canadian cities right now and the pandemic is definitely to blame, Honsberger says. A big source of activity is the massive shift to working from home. According to Statistics Canada, about 16 per cent of Canadian businesses had 10 per cent or more of their staff working remotely in February. That doubled during the pandemic and it doesn’t seem like it’ll change by much: nearly a quarter of Canadian businesses expect at least a tenth of their workforce to keep working from home when the pandemic recedes. 

That means lots of people have decided to look for new houses with home offices, Honsberger says. He even knows a few contractors who are now automatically putting home offices in any new homes they build. “People are deciding they want different things from their home because they spend so much time there,” he says. 

That shift to remote work has also shaken the commercial market, says Andrew Bergen, CBRE’s Atlantic vice-president. There’s been an increase in the amount of office space available for lease across the region in the last few months, he says, but it was a trend that was percolating before the pandemic: more and more employees were asking for flexibility with their work schedules and locations. Now, smaller and mid-sized companies are being hit hardest and they’re choosing to downsize or eliminate their office space to save some money. 

Bergen also says he’s finding companies looking to rent are choosing shorter leases because they’re worried about committing to a long-term deal in the midst of all the pandemic-related uncertainty. 

It’s no secret that the pandemic was a massive blow to Atlantic Canada’s retail businesses and restaurants, and that is definitely also reflected in the commercial real estate market, Bergen says. The slam to the retail sector has also forced many business owners to shift to an online store and then require real estate for warehousing and storage, rather than a walk-in retail store, he says. 

“I’m fairly optimistic in terms of the market in Atlantic Canada. There are deals out there. They’re taking longer, they’re delayed. But I think we’re gonna come out of this quicker than some other provinces just because we’re now open for business,” Bergen says. •


The pandemic hit women workers hardest, according to the Royal Bank of Canada

The numbers are devastating: only 55 per cent of working age women (15 and over) had jobs during the height of the pandemic this spring, reversing decades of improvement in mere weeks, according to RBC. Though women accounted for 51 per cent of pandemic-related job losses in early spring, they’ve only accounted for 45 per cent of the job gains as things reopened in early summer. Women are more likely to work in industries hardest hit and slowest to recover: food service, accommodations and retail among them. They’re also much more likely to have been saddled with childcare as schools shut down.

This is particularly pronounced in Prince Edward Island. According to Statistics Canada, tourism in P.E.I. accounts for three per cent of the province’s GDP—the highest in the country—and 6.7 per cent of the island’s jobs. When the pandemic shut down travel, the industry was levelled. 

Many women work in tourism in P.E.I., and many of the PEI Business Women’s Association members are in the tourism industry, says Margaret Magner, PEIBWA’s executive director. With over 70 per cent of women business owners in P.E.I. being sole employees, and over 60 per cent of women business owners in Atlantic Canada operating solely to generate an income for themselves, according to a 2019 report from Nova Scotia’s Centre for Women in Business, women entrepreneurs have been particularly vulnerable, Magner says. 

“They make their money during the summer months, and that’s what’s going to carry them over to the next year,” she says. “There were a number of them seriously wondering if they were going to have to shut down their business.” The Atlantic Bubble helped and many bed and breakfasts are now full, but Magner expects the recovery for her members—just as for women in the rest of the country—could still be slow and difficult. 

Her advice to women business owners having a hard time? “I would suggest that they reach out, and that they don’t have to go through this alone,” she says. “Each province has their own Women’s Business Center. They have resources.”


Some businesses flourished during the pandemic. Here’s who, and why

In pre-pandemic times—ah, remember them?—the startup ecosystem in Atlantic Canada seemed to be unstoppable: explosive growth, record-breaking investments and seemingly endless innovation. Did the global health emergency slow that breakneck pace of development?

Not quite.

“These kinds of disruptions create opportunity as much as they create chaos,” says Rob Barbara, a partner with Halifax-based investment firm Build Ventures. Many young Atlantic Canadian startups pivoted quickly when the pandemic hit: in St. John’s, for example, both Granville Biomedical and PolyUnity began 3D printing test swabs, face shields and other equipment for health care workers. That ability to transition quickly is a distinguishing feature of a startup, according to Barbara. He says that startups, by definition, are always hunting for new markets and the good ones can quickly pounce when they sense an opportunity.

Then there are the startups whose existing products were suddenly in high demand. Barbara gives the example of ProcedureFlow, a New Brunswick tech company that builds knowledge management software. Their product was successful before the pandemic but suddenly became a must-have.

In a few short months, there will even be more investors in the ecosystem looking for those types of companies. Sandpiper Ventures, the inaugural fund from the Atlantic Women’s Venture Fund, launched in late May. Now they’re hoping to close their first deal in September.

Danielle Graham, Sandpiper’s investment principal, agrees with Barbara’s assertion that the pandemic has opened a wide field of opportunity. Graham takes it a step further, saying it strengthened Sandpiper’s position within the region’s startup scene. “Because we don’t have a historical portfolio right now, we’re in a different position. We’re really building out a post-COVID investment thesis,” she says.

Sandpiper will also be holding cohorts and training sessions, working with incubators and accelerators, and supporting not only startup founders, but women looking to invest in these founders. “Because that’s what our economy needs right now,” Graham says. “Let’s drive forward to the future we already envisioned, and faster.” 


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