Meetings and gatherings are vital components of evaluation, including planning meetings, meetings to engage stakeholders, interviews or focus groups for data collection, data parties to analyse or review results, and meetings or events as part of the process of reporting and supporting use.
However, as the global effort to contain the COVID-19 virus ramps up, many event organisers are rethinking the wisdom of holding in-person gatherings. These include large scale events such as conferences and workshops, as well as smaller events such as stakeholder briefings and team meetings.
While those involved in organising and attending events will be assessing the risks particular to their own situation, we thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of the advice and resources available for holding events online — as an alternative to face-to-face events.
While it’s timely to consider alternatives to face-to-face gatherings now, having alternative methods of attendance is an important accessibility consideration anytime, to ensure that those unable to attend your event in person due to disability, geography, family obligations, cultural commitments and other reasons are included.
Considerations when holding virtual events
How can we foster inclusion?
In the absence of non-verbal cues, and friendly chat, we need to pay focused attention to creating a sense of inclusion and social connectedness. These actions can be really simple, such as assigning someone the role of greeting every member of the group as they join in, turning video on if possible, describing any actions e.g. “Oyem is bringing up the document now”, and ensuring everyone identifies themselves before they contribute. Beth Kanter suggests hosting a preliminary meeting to set ‘meeting norms’ such as these with your group and writing them at the top of every agenda. Other ideas include using a technology everyone has access to, keeping your mic on mute when you’re not speaking and avoiding multi-tasking. Beth’s virtual meetings guide contains many useful, practical tips to keep meetings focused and energised.
Terrence Metz suggests creating a seating chart or “role call” of all the attendees and using it to facilitate comments from around the room ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak. Some video conferencing softwares have a limit on how many participants can be displayed at once, so dragging speakers into the middle of the circle can serve as an additional visual aid to identify who is speaking.
Ensuring engagement opportunities
Consider how you might adapt engagement techniques like breakout groups in a virtual space. Some video conferencing tools allow you to do this, while others may require a workaround. Bev Wenger Trayner has some fantastic tips for encouranging online participation in virtual meetings including utilising tools such as polls for feedback and reflection.
Being aware of different communication styles
The differences in communication styles can be amplified in the absence of face to face contact. Nancy Settle-Murphy shares some advice for holding virtual meetings across cultures. She has also recently updated a paper she wrote in the wake of 9/11 When Meeting Face-to-Face Is No Longer An Option which considers a number of options for virtual meetings
If participants seem a little quiet, Jenny Smith and Teresa Sherman share a range of reasons participants might not be engaging and how to address them.
How can we make the most of our time?
Technology dramas, missed emails, multi-tasking: virtual meetings can have a bad reputation for inefficient use of time. But with a little planning and structure it doesn’t have to be that way.
Pre-reading and preparation
Distribute materials to participants several days ahead of time and have them to hand at the meeting. This includes the agenda, any ‘meeting norms’ and any other materials that will be discussed. The SEA guide on how to prepare for virtual meetings suggests deciding the purpose of the meeting and sticking to it, having a common visual focus and planning the meeting to include opportunities to engage all participants.
Have someone whose role is to help things work smoothly
As well as having a facilitator or meeting chair, consider assigning additional roles such as a person to keep the meeting to time, and a person to troubleshoot any technological problem (see below). Jeanne Rewa suggests having a ‘tech helper’ and a ‘vibes watcher’ in this thought-provoking guide to facilitating hybrid groups.
How can we minimise technological friction?
Preparedness is the key to minimising technology issues.
Test out technology before the meeting
Test the equipment ahead of time. If possible, it's a good idea to get participants to do this from the place they will be connecting from, as some organisations have firewalls or software restrictions that are good to know about before the event. Ask participants to check meeting links are working and download any software they might require.
Make sure the meeting information is easy to access
Write the date, time and timezone of the meeting in the body of the meeting calendar invite, to ensure those using a different email client can easily access those important details. It's also a good idea to send a reminder email with the meeting access details just before the start of the meeting.
Have a back up plan
Consider what to do when technology isn’t working smoothly and have an alternative platform ready as a backup. If video is lagging, could you turn video off and rely on emailed materials? Could participants message in if they are having sound issues.
Staying connected with teams outside of meetings and events
If you’re interested to learn more in a virtual environment, the Ways of Working conference will host talks and panels sharing approaches and learnings to working remotely. It’s happening on Friday the 20th of March 2020 and it’s free. Sign up to the Change at Work conference here.
The Victorian Public Sector Commission also has some excellent materials for managing dispersed teams..
Collaborative actions to improve our ways of working online
New ideas about how to work well together online are constantly being developed, and old ideas shared in more accessible ways.
Nancy White, already well-known in the circles of online communities and facilitation, has initiated a rapid response to the present circumstances by producing some extremely useful resources – which both draw on and demonstrate the strength of collaborating with peers online.
Her new blog series, Moving online in a pandemic, gives readers a solid grounding to go about shifting their interactions online. Nancy writes:
“ ‘How can we stay connected to each other in any way in a time of social distancing?’ The pragmatic manifestation of that will be to think with fellow practitioners, share practices, insights, ideas and inspirations on how groups can productively meet, engage, connect and then experiment and iterate to make progress online in a way that builds on our strengths and helps us move past fear into abundant action.”
In addition to the blog, Nancy has started a community of practice, the Facilitators for Pandemic Response group for those interested in sharing or receiving advice and resources to do with facilitating online events. You can join here.
And finally, as an output of the community of practice and other collaborators, there is a fantastic and in-progress list of resources, advice and examples that is being collated in a Google Doc. The document is a living document, and is a work in progress, so if you have some materials or links to add or some time to spend helping to tidy and curate the information, please consider contributing to it.
What's your advice?
We'd love to hear your tips and suggestions for moving events from face-to-face to online. Let us know in the comments below!