How to Drive Connection in a Virtual World

By: Corey Blake, CEO Round Table Companies James Cook in Event Experiences
on May 20th, 2020

“That one’s mine,” said Thomas, the owner of a technology company. He was speaking to the founder of a large fast-casual restaurant chain while pointing to an artistic rendering of his own words in front of them. He said the words aloud: “I lost my company.”

It was 2015, and over the course of a two-day event for conscious capitalists, Thomas had joined nearly one hundred other attendees in anonymously writing something vulnerable on a card and dropping it into a container marked “vulnerability share box.” Now he stood in front of the eight-foot-tall, sixteen-foot-wide black canvas that reflected every entry back to the entire community as a piece of art.

Thomas marveled at how the thought he was most afraid to share with others—that he had lost his company—now added two inches to his height. His old story—that losing his company was a burden he would forever carry—had collided with a new story as he stood in front of the art wall. That new story was a different mirror, one that reflected back to him his own words through the lens of beauty. The metal spikes and broken glass corners that had always accompanied his thoughts around that loss gave way to a version of his story that felt less dangerous while still respecting the weight of all he’d been through. That dissonance between the stories—the one he had carried with him juxtaposed against the version the artists presented on the wall—hit him with the intensity of a car crash.

“I remember this was a change moment in my life,” Thomas shared three years later, in a 2018 interview. “I was before and after. Before I was in pain for a year and a half. After, I said, ‘Oh my god, I feel so light, so much better.’ For me, that experience was an eye-opening, heart-opening, life-changing moment.”

Since that event, the art wall experience has become a cornerstone of Round Table Companies’ organizational storytelling process. We’ve completed live art installations across the country at conferences like SXSW, WEFTEC, and the World-Changing Women’s Summit, and for companies like Microsoft, ADP, Marketo, and Workday. ADP brought their wall back to their main office. The Hyatt Lost Pines in Austin saved a wall erected there and has featured it in their training room ever since. The wall for Hope Global was claimed by a museum, and the wall for Small Giants was held for a start-up incubator in Detroit.

Smash cut to 2020 and the unimaginable impact of COVID-19.

Almost overnight, the virus disrupted everyday life, and all live events were cancelled. A portion of the country, deemed essential, had no time for reflection as they were thrust into working long hours to save lives or keep supply chains moving. Many of those who could afford to stay home (or were forced to) flooded their social media feeds with emotion as they attempted to make sense of all that was unfolding.

Meanwhile, our team at Round Table Companies was navigating our own challenges, while also returning to the question, “How might we play a role in helping others during this crisis?” At RTC, we know how to create connection between human beings; it’s the centerpiece of everything we do: our book writing process, our organizational storytelling work, our game, and our art walls. But we were facing an unfamiliar question also being asked by event planners and event managers around the world: how do we create connection when so much of the world is in isolation?

The answer came as a whisper that we nearly missed. On March 26, Jamie Roeling, the managing director of Client Success at PrecisionLender, reached out. She had seen an art wall experience by RTC back in 2016 and her email asked, “Wondered if you have an option to produce a virtual art installation?” Without realizing what she had done, Jamie planted a seed at Round Table Companies. Two weeks later, we knew we would offer a virtual art wall to the world during the pandemic and to event planners, conference coordinators, and festival managers forever hereafter. Two weeks later, www.unitedbycovid.com, our first virtual art wall poked out from the soil and raised its head toward the sun.

Most walls are blockades that ensure privacy, offer protection, or induce isolation. RTC’s art walls are doorways, gateways to deeper connections. We launched #unitedbycovid to create a safe space where strangers around the world could connect through our shared humanity. The entries we have received speak for themselves.

Ultimately, our hope for www.unitedbycovid.com is that people will come together to discover they are not alone and, by participating, can move through some of the more challenging emotions we are all facing. Though we may find ourselves on different pages of the COVID-19 story, we are still part of the same book for the first time in most of our lives. Our human default is to buy into the belief that the page we are on is the only page. Through vulnerability, art, and the amplification of the internet, the wall is an opportunity to see this experience from behind the eyes of others. The virtual wall is a place to transform our stories from fear to beauty, a mirror that invites us to see ourselves in one another. It is there where we will find connection.

United. By a wall.