In March 2020, so many aspects of our work and lives changed overnight. At Delta Center California, we learned to be agile in fostering meaningful policy and practice transformation work in a new online era. Over the past two years, Delta Center CA has held monthly policy and collective action meetings, bi-monthly virtual learning events, and two convenings, all on Zoom. We strive to be intentional in the ways we engage our participants to maximize relationship building, learning, and collaboration. Here are some tips for virtual collaboration and engagement that we have learned along the way.
1. Do not try to replicate an in-person meeting.
No virtual space can replace an in-person meeting. Rather than attempting to replicate what you would do in person, reimagine the structure and format of your event in a virtual context. Utilize tools for virtual spaces to try to enhance communication and relationship building, establish and share norms for participation and engagement, and take advantage of the ways that virtual engagement levels the playing field by creating equal space for everyone.
2. Play music.
When hosting a virtual event, replace awkward silence with music! You can solicit song requests from participants before the event to play during breaks and transitions. This helps to create community and conversation, marks a change in session or topic, and lightens the mood.
3. Encourage stretch breaks.
In places where the agenda doesn’t allow for a full break, incorporate stretch breaks into your event. These can be 1-2 minute breaks where your audience is encouraged to get up, get out of their chair, take a deep breath, and move their bodies. Participants often return to the virtual space feeling energized (especially if they’ve been stretching to some music!) and ready to dive back into the content of the event.
4. Create spaces for connection.
Working in a virtual world makes it difficult to have the chance interactions you would have during in-person meetings. Instead, you may need to plan structured time for participants to get to know each other. For example, our team has used constructivist listening, a technique in which participants are put into pairs and each have three minutes to speak, while their partner listens deeply without any expectation of responding. Additionally, you can create flexible discussion spaces, like virtual breakout rooms where participants can “choose their own adventure” regarding a topic they’d like to discuss or people they would like to connect with. These are low-pressure spaces where participants can get to know others they might not have had the opportunity to otherwise.
5. Utilize graphic facilitation.
Bringing graphic facilitators or recorders into your event is a great way to enhance learning and engagement for virtual participants. A graphic recorder can visually capture the key messages of a presentation or conversation, providing visual learners with another way to engage with the content. Graphic facilitators can use imagery and visual synthesis to support relationship building and bring a group toward consensus in real-time. The resulting visuals are also a great alternative to written meeting summaries or notes.
6. Have a contingency plan.
Prepare for technical difficulties and have a plan for when things go wrong. Given how heavily we rely on technology and the internet, it’s likely at least one presenter or participant will run into an issue. Have a dedicated tech person to help troubleshoot any issues that arise, as well as others to assist, and provide a point of contact for participants in case they have difficulty connecting.
7. Create grace in the space, for yourself and others.
Strive to create a welcoming, safe, and brave environment where people feel comfortable making mistakes. This includes preparing your team to respond to both unanticipated technical difficulties and sensitive topics. If issues arise, responding with calm and grace may help your participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas, perspectives, and vulnerabilities.