It’s remarkable how tech innovation has enabled us to adapt many aspects of our lives to the pandemic. Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom have kept the trains on the tracks at work. Milk and More and Deliveroo ensure a steady stream of nutritious food to my doorstep, and subscription services like Freddie’s Flowers and Bloombox Club make my studio loft lockdown abode a little less ascetic, improving my mood and wellbeing.
Despite the proliferation of these mood-boosting tech-enabled innovations I’m struck that in one of the most important aspects of life, we still struggle to adapt: we have yet to scale human connection in a pandemic context.
There’s plenty of evidence that the loss of human connection is taking a huge toll on all ages of society. For many children who used to build relationships with friends and caring adults at school, physical distance has become a significant challenge. As a former teacher of three to five year olds, these drawings collected by the Washington Post clearly communicate an enormous sense of loss. Many adults are suffering, too. As we lose the serendipitous lunch breaks or chats by the coffee pot, many workers feel lonelier and more stressed, and some companies are seeing drops in productivity and loyalty.
Fortunately, there are some innovators experimenting with scaling human connection, to help us adapt to changes short and long term, and find new ways of building deep connections with others, both in person and across a screen. I’m excited to introduce you to them below, and share how you can use them in your daily life.
EasyPeasy: Connection between parents and children
As a former teacher, my heart goes out to the teachers and parents trying to support young children’s learning during COVID-19. Young children are not developmentally prepared to sit at screens for long periods of time and learn, and even if they could, they’d be missing the most important part of learning and growing for their age: building relationships. This quote from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, my number one research go-to as a teacher, says it all:
"No matter the source of the hardship, the single most common factor for children who end up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult."
The genius of EasyPeasy is that they drive this message home for parents, who are struggling to balance keeping (or finding) a job with their new roles as educators. EasyPeasy meets parents in this stressful place, providing simple, play-based activities they can do with children that fit into a family’s daily routine.
Take for example lunchtime, something that’s going to happen every day. An EasyPeasy activity might show parents how to use lunch as an opportunity for their child to count out scoops to make a serving. This gives the child experience in measurement, counting, and independence, all while having a positive experience with their favorite person - their parent. In this way, EasyPeasy activities build children’s skills, involve no screens, and encourage parents and children to spend quality time together - which makes all the difference in both learning and strengthening the parent-child relationship. A study on EasyPeasy shows that it improves children’s cognitive self-regulation and parent reviews are excellent. You can download the app and use it with your young children here.
MyVillage: Connection between educators
The pandemic is putting an immense strain on the childcare industry: 40% of childcare centers claim they’ll close permanently without public assistance. As childcare centers buckle under financial pressures, family childcare homes are becoming the most viable option the industry is looking toward. Yet running a home-based childcare program is no walk in the park - between serving food, providing quality educational activities, and running a business, starting a home-based program can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Without support, home-based providers can find themselves overwhelmed and stressed, creating less bandwidth to focus on their relationships with children.
Enter MyVillage, a startup that aims to relieve the stress of becoming an early childhood entrepreneur, allowing educators to focus on developing a stable, committed relationship with children in their care. MyVillage primarily relieves educator stress through community, including classes to help customers plan their programs, 24/7 support, and connection with mentors and other program owners across the US. As a result, MyVillage program owners feel less isolated and can focus on the quality of their programs. You can find childcare with MyVillage programs or learn about starting one yourself here.
Icebreaker: Connection between co-workers
Educators are not the only group of adults craving human connection - it’s a desire and need that is industry agnostic.
First, human connections at work are good for business: “close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to fully engage in their work.” Second, companies that actively foster human connection between their employees make an investment in their employees’ resilience, at work and outside the (virtual) office. According to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, positive social relationships are one of the most important inputs to create resilience - something we all need to bring our best selves to work and to the other challenges of pandemic life.
The best startup I’ve experienced working on scaling human connection between co-workers (broadly interpreted) is Icebreaker. Icebreaker provides fun, conversational games that involve flipping through a deck of virtual cards, each with a funny or thought-provoking question on them. These games feel natural to play online and lead to joyful and meaningful interactions. Skillful, a professional learning network I’m a part of, has successfully used Icebreaker to shake-up the usual video call experience and help network members get to know each other better. As a result of participating in these games, I feel closer with the community and more comfortable interacting virtually with others in the network. You can get a free plan to use Icebreaker starting today here.
Do you know of any startups scaling human connection?
These are just a few startups I’ve found through my experiences, I would love to hear if there are others you love!