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How Videoconferencing Is Being Used to Connect During the Pandemic

Amid the stress of the coronavirus outbreak, many tech-shy people are changing how they communicate with others

spinner image Businessman video conferencing from home
Alistair Berg / Getty Images

Suzanne Rischman, 60, San Francisco, attorney

I don't like to work from home. Every morning, I would get dressed, go to the office and stay there for 12 hours. I'm the least technologically advanced human you'll meet. I have a laptop, iPhone and iPad, but I do not have internet service at my apartment. So to work from home, I took a small desk in my living room, stuck my laptop on there and hooked up my iPad as an internet hot spot, using its cell signal. I used YouTube tutorials to figure it out. There was this kid on the video; he was about 8 years old, and he was the best.

Right now, video chat is our friend. I've been using it a lot for happy hours. The other night, I FaceTimed with some friends. We had cocktails, and we watched each other make dinner. After a couple minutes, it was like, “Oh, this is exactly what we always do.” I'd sit at their kitchen bar, watch them cook, and chitchat. It's not all that different except I don't have to comb my hair. —As told to Lexi Pandell

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Sandra Bishop, 61, Bedford, Indiana, retired civil servant

My husband and I live on 40 wooded acres. It's where we raised our twin sons, who are now 29 and youth ministers. It's a peaceful place to be right now, but quiet. I've quickly started to depend on technology for staying connected with my church. The Facebook page of Mt. Pleasant Christian has something going on all the time: There are live services every Sunday. Our pastor does live Q&A's, too. People ask, “What can I do to help? How can I pray?” Others log on to sing and play music, or they coordinate who needs groceries delivered. Recently, we all drove to the local hospital, parked two spaces apart, stayed in our cars, turned our flashers on and prayed for the people inside. Mt. Pleasant is getting over a thousand views of each Sunday sermon — much bigger than our congregation — so I know people are looking for answers. Church is a place of comfort and community. This technology shows each of us that we're not the only ones out there. But, wow, when this thing is over, we're all going to get back together and hug tight. —As told to Evelyn Spence

spinner image man as appearing on a zoom call in a browser window with casino background
Courtesy Dan Kadlec/Background: Shutterstcok

Dan Kadlec, 63, San Francisco, semiretired journalist

When I joined a fledgling poker league in 2006, none of us were much good. Our 10-person game in Westchester County, New York, amounted to a group effort to learn Texas Hold'em while talking trash. It grew to as many as 30 players at a monthly game in a community room with paid dealers. But recirculating piles of poker chips in close quarters is a bad idea now, even if the chips recirculate your way. So in March, we moved to PokerStars, an online card room. We used the site's play chips but settled up in real money via Venmo or PayPal. Calling out someone's avatar as a lucky SOB in the dialogue box loses some sting, but it preserves the league DNA.

Our March tournament went so well that we started a nightly game. This arrangement has been especially good for me. I would get back to New York for the monthly tournaments, but my home is now in San Francisco. When the crisis passes, the league will reconvene in person. But I have no doubt that some version of our group's online play will persist. —Dan Kadlec

Christie “Kanta” Haran, 51, Purcellville, Virginia, yoga instructor

spinner image Woman answering a video chat call
Getty Images

Be a Star On-screen: Tips for Your Video Chat

• Use the best device. Laptops or tablets with stands — not smartphones — are best for video calls. They are easy to move to ideal filming locations and will stand up on their own.

• Get the right angle. Point the camera down slightly — no one wants to look up a person's nose. Use a laptop stand, stack of books or yoga blocks to align your device with the top of your head. Then angle the camera toward your eyes.

• Check your background.

• Avoid backlit glare from windows and harsh lights, which will cast you as a shadowy silhouette. Also, avoid walking around with your device. It can be disorienting to the viewer.

• Improve your sound. Use earbuds with a built-in mic to help your voice carry more clearly.

• Plan your call. Before a group call, designate someone to lead, and consider using hand raising to control the conversation. Avoid the urge to jump in; it muddles the sound. To reduce noise, ask participants to put themselves on mute when they're not speaking. —L.P.

At first, I didn't want to do livestream classes because it seemed too impersonal. But when we come together on video chat, we can wave and say, “Hey, how you doing? Hanging in there?” It's human. It's interactive. It's vulnerable. The first class I taught, I looked at the camera at one point and said, “I miss you all so much.” It really landed for me at that moment how grateful I am to be in class with them.

That said, teaching yoga on video is a little challenging. If we are in Downward Dog and I say, “Step your right foot forward into a lunge position,” it's hard to see in their little boxes on the screen whether they're gently drawing in their abdomen, lifting through the spine and expanding the breath. One time I encouraged them to move their feet in a certain way. But the way my camera was positioned, they couldn't see my feet! —As told to Brian Barth

Buzz Bruggeman, 74, Seattle, entrepreneur

My plan was to lie low, walk my dog, eat carefully, stay thin and flirt with a couple of cute women over video chat. Very cheap dates, no travel required. I put on a nice shirt, sweatpants — no need to dress up. They buy their own wine.

But then I looked around and said, “Who are the people I cared the most about, and where are they?” We held my birthday party virtually, and at peak we had 14 guests, including people in Silicon Valley; Sun Valley, Florida; and Brisbane, Australia.

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The interesting intersection of it all was that some of them knew each other and some of them had no idea who the others were. Some fun stories, anecdotes and questions. Lots of conversation around the virus, how people were coping, a bit about the Seattle public schools, some talk about wine. One of my women friends is at Kaiser Permanente, and she had a lot of data and really understands both the medical story and the physiology. She was great! When we finished the call — the last guest left after about 21/2 hours — I got another glass of wine, started making dinner, and three of the people called to tell me how wonderful it was. There's something about being comfortable in your own environment: It's nonthreatening, easy to control how you look. No traveling. No parking. It felt pretty natural. —As told to Edward C. Baig

Edward Lee, 44, Sacramento, California, physician and Kaiser Permanente's executive vice president of information technology

I went into medicine to take care of patients, to heal people, to comfort people, to promote their well-being. I just didn't know that I would be doing a lot of that through the telephone, video and online messaging. I've been doing telehealth for 15 years, just not at the volume during this crisis. My day is just as busy, but instead of going from exam room to exam room, I go from one telehealth encounter to another.

It's a convenient and easy way for patients to access our care. The video is pretty good: I can see them smiling. I can see if they look ill, if they're in pain. At the same time, if there's a more detailed physical examination needed, I won't be able to do that. I can't feel a bump to see if it's hard or soft, I can't give an injection or perform an excision. There's a connection you'd have with a patient when you're physically in the same room, and it can be hard to substitute the degree of empathy you can convey. You can't hold a patient's hand when you deliver a difficult diagnosis. There are some drawbacks, but for more common types of interactions, it works well. —As told to Lexi Pandell

spinner image a reverend in a church as appearing in a zoom meeting browser window
Courtesy St. John's Episcopal Church

The Rev. Patricia Harris Curtis, 68, Sylva, North Carolina

I'd never used Zoom before, but since three weeks before Easter, that's how we've held our Sunday services at St. John's Episcopal. I give the service from my office desk, wearing my collar and stole, though I don't wear my alb and chasuble. It's kind of hard to tell from the little squares on the screen what the parish is wearing, but I think of it as come-as-you-are church. I just ask people to prepare a sacred space in their home for the service — a candle, flowers or whatever that means to them. Normally, we always have coffee hour after service, where everyone sits around tables in the parish hall and chatters away. On video chat, everyone can't talk at once, of course, so we go one at a time. People share very touching stories, often from places of pain and anxiety. It's more intentional and more intimate than coffee hour. Isn't that ironic that intimacy might be increased when we're using technology? —As told to Brian Barth

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