This week’s post is by Allison Khaw. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

I was sitting at my desk recently, participating in a virtual work meeting, when I sneezed.

I was already muted, so the meeting continued without pause, but this got me thinking.  As a side effect of our current behavioral norms, we are effectively subduing those idiosyncrasies that make us human.  Returning my gaze to the computer screen, I mused to myself: Should we be muting our sneezes?

I still chuckle at the inexplicable absurdity of this question—muting our sneezes, who would have thought!—but I also ask it with a genuine yearning to understand the answer.  And the true question, as you may have guessed, extends beyond sneezing.  Before COVID-19 upended our work culture, we lived in a time where in-person meetings were more common than hybrid or virtual ones.  The paradigm has shifted so dramatically that the opposite is true today.  Virtual meetings are prevalent out of necessity, and we’ve become more adept at handling them than ever before.

When we participate in these meetings, we possess the incredible ability to mute our voices or disappear from view at the click of a button.  Our current circumstances pose seeming contradictions: our presence can be invisible; our sneezes can be silent!  Ultimately, we now have the freedom to choose when to be seen and heard.

However, as the phrase goes, freedom always comes with a cost.  We’re trying to appear—and be—professional, but what are we losing in return?

Of course, muting is important in many situations, whether you’re minimizing your background noise in a large meeting or finishing your lunch without wanting to moderate the crunch level of your chips.  Thus, we should do our best to maintain this self-awareness in our virtual meetings while finding ways to avoid muting our own humanity in the process.

And how do we do that?  Well, we can take a meaningful first step by performing small experiments, true to the spirit of the Innovation Toolkit.  For instance, try showing your video while speaking for a presentation, using your authentic home office as your meeting background, or eating your lunch with your microphone off but your camera on.  Another idea is to try an “active listening” exercise: pair up with a coworker, listen to them describe their day for two uninterrupted minutes before you paraphrase what you heard them say, and then swap roles.  After doing this exercise in a recent “Yes, And” Innovation Toolkit workshop, I felt rejuvenated by the chance to listen to someone else and be equally heard.  Whatever you decide to try, stretch outside of your comfort zone and then reflect on how it went.

As we look towards the future, we need to remember that no one expects us to be perfect, not even in a virtual setting.  We need to remember that simple visual cues such as nodding, smiling, or laughing can be invaluable in bringing us closer together despite our physical distance.  What’s more, we need to have conversations about these topics, now and often.  In fact, if we don’t, we may find that the sounds of our sneezes are not all that we’ll lose in the end.