How to Create Meaningful Online Gatherings

I met my sister Rebecca at the nearby beach about a week before the stay-at-home order was put in place here in Seattle. It was a chance to connect in-person, six-feet apart, with one of my favorite people, as well as an opportunity to hear how the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance is adjusting to its quick switch to an online reality.

With all in-person instruction cancelled, faculty who were previously reluctant to put classes online are now faced with no other choice, and Rebecca — in her role as Chief of Staff and Assistant Dean — is adapting to the new default of remote staff collaboration. She noted they’ve moved all meetings to Zoom, recreated informal socializing and “water-cooler conversations” through Microsoft Teams channels, and organized remote happy hours (even virtual dance parties!) to encourage community and connectedness.

As a leader of a remote team myself I was familiar with the types of tools and approaches groups can use to collaborate remotely. But it was then that Rebecca said something that really surprised me. She told me what a joy it has been to see other people’s children, pets, and family members pop into the screen from time to time. And how refreshing it was to see people joining in from their own personal spaces, with artwork, plants, or books in the background, the personal touches of their home life shining through.

This forced shift to an online environment is blurring the traditionally hard line between work life and personal life, your work-self and real-self, reminding us all that we are whole people with complex lives outside of our normal work interactions.

This time of physical distancing may in some ways be opening the door for us to discover new ways of connecting with one another, providing access to those who cannot easily travel for a meeting, and perhaps even expanding our ability to bring our whole selves to work. Of course, to take full advantage of the opportunities that remote gatherings provide there are significant technological gaps and equity issues we will need to overcome. Along with increasing access to computers and broadband, we have work to do to increase our literacy with new tech tools so that online spaces invite all participants into meaningful collaboration.

At Converge, we have been experimenting for quite some time with what is possible online. We have had the benefit of practicing as a remote team for the past eight years, and our experiences coordinating various networks that connect people across organizations and large distances have taught us a lot about how to keep people connected remotely. But we’re also having to quickly transition to a new reality, as our preferred mode of gathering was always in-person, and many of our upcoming network convenings are now moving by necessity to a virtual space. Fortunately, what we’ve seen in our experience has so far been quite promising.

For example, just last month one of our practitioners, Gabriel Grant — author of Breaking Through Gridlock — helped facilitate a two-day gathering with Green America’s Clean Electronics Production Network featuring 45 leaders from the private and social sectors (7 in person, 38 online) that resulted in significant progress moving towards their goal of zero exposure of workers to toxic chemicals in electronics manufacturing. Gabriel used PollEverywhere to help get a lot of voices into the conversation and make decisions as a group, and an Owl Pro meeting camera provided a seamless way of connecting the remote participants with those who were present in-person. (click here for our review of the best tools for remote collaboration)

Another one of our practitioners, Carri Munn, led a conversation with the leadership team of a global finance network using Mural to brainstorm future activities areas across the three focus areas of the network. In a 45 minute session participants engaged seamlessly in virtual ideation and prioritization. The ability for users to contribute and manipulate content in this online space turned out to be easier than people crowded around a whiteboard in person.

Virtual whiteboard created in Mural

Around the same time a third Converge practitioner, Elsa Henderson, who teaches a postgraduate program in holistic counseling and psychotherapy at the Metavision Institute, led a class on how to work with acute and complex trauma as practitioners, therapists, coaches, and facilitators. Although Elsa was not able to be present in-person with her students, she was still able to create a container that allowed for deep vulnerability, in part by demonstrating meditation and somatic exercises to connect participants with their breath, bodies, and the earth.

Whether in person or virtual, nothing is more frustrating than meetings that drag on, deaden enthusiasm, and accomplish little. With the online tools available to us today, it is more possible than ever to design and lead remote meetings that cultivate deeper connections and get things done. Just because we’re practicing ‘social distancing’ doesn’t mean we can’t stay connected. Here are our favorite tips and tools to ensure a productive, meaningful online gathering.

The Special Sauce of Online Gatherings

Create space for connection. Virtual meetings have historically been designed to be very action-oriented, focusing on the immediate task at hand with little time for social connection. However, it is just as important, if not more important, to provide space for direct connection between participants in online gatherings as it is in face-to-face meetings, as participants don’t have the same ability to ‘bump into’ one another and take advantage of those spontaneous interactions that lead to great new connections or a bout of laughter. Instead, we have to deliberately design those kinds of interactions into the gathering. Here are a few things you can do to increase connection and build community in online spaces:

A subset of the Converge team in action

Small groups are magic: In online spaces we don’t have the same access to body language and non-verbal cues that are so important for group dynamics. For people to engage most fully, they need to be in small enough groups such that they can see and interact with each person simultaneously. As a general rule of thumb, think about the large group as the place for framing and summarizing, and use small groups to dig into content and discussions. It’s much easier to stay engaged in online gatherings when in a small group with 1–3 others than in the full group where folks can easily multitask or stay silent for long stretches.

Start with personal check-ins: We recommend beginning each meeting with personal check-ins, with a clear and specific question prompt — perhaps something about how people are feeling, what they hope for the gathering, or a “show and tell” about an item they have nearby. However, do not do these check-ins in the full group, as they can take a very long time and grow tedious quickly. Instead, split participants into pairs using breakout rooms. Give them 3 minutes to chat, and then bring them back to the full group. Depending on time you may do this multiple rounds so each person chats with at least a few others, and you may want to do some brief sharing back to the whole group. Another technique is to have people check-in using the chat window, sharing where they are calling from and why they have joined.

Take time to cultivate the community: You might plan a virtual happy hour with very limited programming, or — our preference — opt for a lightly facilitated conversation that encourages people to connect at a deeper level than they would normally. All you need is a single question prompt to get started, and then a bit of timing to help the conversation flow.

When the group is larger than seven people, we recommend breaking folks into groups of four. Provide a question prompt, and invite a brave person to begin responding to the prompt, speaking from the heart and trusting whatever arises in that moment. Each person gets five minutes to speak uninterrupted, followed by a minute of reflection from the full group.

Here are some prompts you might try:

  • Share an object from home and why it represents home.
  • Share the story of a transformational period in your life and how it changed you.
  • Share a book that has influenced or shaped your worldview.
  • Share the story of how you came to do the work you do today.

Facilitation is needed more than ever. Without the same level of visual cues to help us navigate the dance of a group conversation, people need quality facilitation in online spaces to frame the conversation, ensure all have space to contribute and no one dominates, and lead the group to a decision or clarity on next steps. As a facilitator, continue to lean into silence as you would at a face-to-face meeting, noting that it is often harder to sit with silence on virtual calls than it is in-person. Notice who comes off mute temporarily, as it might be a cue they have something to say.

Use whatever online tools you are comfortable with — they can go a long way towards making an online meeting more interactive and productive. Some of our favorites tools for supporting remote facilitation include the ‘nonverbal feedback’ setting in Zoom that allows participants to ‘raise their hands’, ask for a break, or request that the facilitator slows down or speeds up (you may need to activate this nonverbal feedback feature in your Zoom settings). We also frequently use polling tools like PollEverywhere or Slido to get quick feedback on a discussion topic and make group decisions, and virtual whiteboards like Miro for content creation (see our full list of favorite tech tools below). Consider designating a ‘tech steward’ — someone other than the facilitator who is comfortable with setting up and navigating the group through the various tech tools it plans to use.

An online gratitude choir organized by Catherine Farquharson

Practice visualization and grounding: Staring at a computer all day can make your eyes glaze over and your body hunch into a deep slouch. Take time to pay special attention to refreshing the mind and the body while in online spaces. Invite participants to think of themselves as sitting in a circle with the others on the call. Use breathing, meditation techniques, and stretching to transition between modules or to come back from breaks. Remind participants to stay grounded, with their feet firmly on the floor, sitting upright as if a string were pulling them up from the tops of their heads. Conveners.org calls these essential interventions “threshold moments” — experiences that feel markedly different than typical virtual meetings, which tend to be very efficient and action-oriented.

Alternate between online and offline work: If you’re hosting a session that spans a full day or multiple days, that doesn’t mean that every aspect of it needs to happen in front of a computer. Give people space to do focused work offline, to take their computers to a new space and work on a collaborative document with others, to go on a walk while talking on the phone with a partner or small group, and to take extended breaks. In general people have a hard time focusing for more than 90 minutes at a time, so break up the gathering into 90 minute intervals with different modes of gathering.

Utilize collaborative software tools. There are multitudes of different online tools you can use to keep your group connected. The right collaborative tech stack will drastically increase your group’s ability to share information and work together effectively. On the other hand, choose the wrong tools and you might be stuck with steep learning curves and annoying tech issues.

The tools we use most often for online gatherings include Zoom for video chat, Slack for ongoing communication, PollEverywhere for voting and group decision making, Google Docs for document editing, and Miro or Mural as a collaborative whiteboard. See below for a review of our favorite collaborative tech tools, with explanations for why we use the tools we use. Click here for a complete overview of our favorite tools for remote collaboration.

Group Guidelines for Online Gatherings

In addition to the usual group guidelines you use, we recommend adding a few more for online gatherings:

  • Join by video: Agree to join by video and keep your cameras on whenever possible. If someone has a poor internet connection, invite them to keep their camera on and dial-in to the audio by phone. If people anticipate a poor internet connection, ask them to join by video and dial-into to the audio using their phone instead (but be sure they mute the audio on their computer and turn off the volume of their computer before joining by phone to avoid the ear splitting sound of audio feedback).
  • Mute your sound, not your reactions. It’s helpful to stay on mute when not talking to reduce background noise — particularly in large groups. However, this can also dampen the energy of the conversation by removing the immediate feedback of laughter, agreement, or disagreement that is so valuable in conversation. So instead, when on mute, continue to provide immediate feedback to comments by typing in the group chat, using head gestures like nodding or shaking (be melodramatic so people can see you), or by using the American Sign Language gesture for applause.
The American Sign Language gesture for applause
  • Practice self-awareness and stay engaged. It’s tempting to want to multitask when on a video call, but all the research shows that multitasking isn’t actually effective — listening comprehension goes way down when you’re focusing on something other than the conversation. So out of respect for the others on the call, do your best to stay engaged in the conversation, listen deeply, and avoid multitasking.
  • Land the plane. Speak succinctly, and provide space for others. Online gatherings can be more draining than in-person gatherings. As humans we rely on non-verbal cues for communication, so trying to stay connected is harder work online. Agree to keep comments brief and ‘land the plane.’
  • Assume positive intent. Remember: everyone is doing the best they can with the information they have. Technology adds a layer of frustration and complication. So, let’s be kind to one another as we learn to work at a distance.

The Best Tools for Remote Collaboration

Choosing the right software stack for your team or network is essential. Here’s what we recommend.

Kumu — an interactive tool to map the assets across your group

Additional Resources We’re Tracking

There’s so much great content out there to help you transition to an online environment. Here are just a few resources we’ve found particularly helpful:

Cultivating Meaningful Online Gatherings

We believe it’s possible to cultivate online spaces that can be even more accessible, more inclusive, and even more productive than most in-person gatherings of the same length. To think through your next gathering together send us an email at connect@converge.net and we’ll set up a time to chat.

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Converge is a network of strategists, designers, storytellers, and systems thinkers who believe in interconnection as the ground for action. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come — join us in the network approach to creating a future that works for all.

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David Ehrlichman

David Ehrlichman

Author of Impact Networks. Catalyst & coordinator of Converge (converge.net). Writing about the way we work together and how it can be different.

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