Developing Distanced Gatherings

Mike Press
Jul 9, 2020 · 14 min read
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For fifteen weeks from the end of March 2020 we ran a weekly one hour ‘Distanced Gathering’ for Scotland’s service design community, but open to anyone. The focus was on small group conversations about how we were coping and what we hoped for in the future. Every Thursday at noon, between 26 and 68 people would come to our Zoom event. Lorri Smyth, Barbara Mertlova, Hazel White and I were involved in producing it. This is my interpretation of how we developed it.

The Moon Under Water

In 1946 George Orwell penned a review of his favourite pub — The Moon Under Water. He describes it as open and welcoming: “many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there.” For Orwell it is a “family gathering-place” as opposed to a “mere boozing shop”, offering atmosphere and conversation, “always quiet enough to talk” with staff who have a personal interest in all their customers. “But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water.”

I remembered The Moon Under Water when Lorri Smyth and I began discussing doing an online meet-up for Scotland’s service design community right at the start of lockdown. She had been one of the organisers of the service design meet-up held in Edinburgh in January, and it seemed important to keep the momentum going. However, now the circumstances were very different, and unlike the Edinburgh event we would not be holding it in a crowded bar.

During the first few days of lockdown I participated in a number of online events. Some were workshops, others were meet-ups, with a couple of short courses thrown in. While all had positive qualities, I was faced with the same problems that confronted George Orwell: “I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three London pubs that possess them.”

There was also an emphasis on productivity — coping with the crisis by being busy, practical and productive. For Lorri, myself and many others such problem focussed coping was premature. As Lorri said at our very first Gathering: “We all cope with adversity in different ways. Some people thrive in the environment that we find ourselves in, many will not. We all need to figure out our own way through this time.” For us, a focus on wellbeing and our own feelings was necessary in a space that enabled us to relax and reflect with others, as best as we could. A bit like a garden.

What is a Gathering?

What struck me about the other online events I had participated in was that few had any of the qualities or touchpoint equivalents of real life gatherings. So I sketched out the experience of the most recent gathering I had attended, the Service Design in Government conference which reliably provides a great experience. And what is that experience?

You enter a building with a sense of expectation, walk up some stairs and are greeted by a friendly person who hands you a programme, points out where to hang your coat and invites you to grab a coffee. In the coffee queue you start chatting to the person next to you, you may then chat to somebody else, before seeing three people walk in who you know, so you catch up with them. Then you go to hear the keynote speaker, after which you chat to the people sitting either side of you about the talk. You walk away from the event feeling inspired and energised having made a couple of new friends. So that was roughly the plan.

At Service Design in Government, Hazel and I ran a workshop on Liberating Structures, so we thought about how we could apply these in a Zoom based event to create these conversation spaces. Over the first few weeks we tried out a few different approaches, finally settling on our own version of impromptu networking and a stripped back version of 1–2–4-all (basically without the 1–2 bit). The first three gatherings we held were very much prototypes each refining structure, content and technical aspects of the event.

Making a drama out of a crisis

While the Distanced Gathering was my means of keeping busy and learning some new skills in Open Change, Hazel was leading on a project for various clinicians in NHS Scotland developing short films for fellow health and social care professionals. In particular, the film made with Dr Caroline Cochrane, Head of Psychological Services at NHS Borders on stress, coping and resilience influenced my thinking on the underlying aims of the Gatherings. Keeping connected, communicating and being flexible, she explained, would help you through a crisis.

Back in January I attended a Co-Creation School workshop on Theatrical Methods for Service Design in Nuremberg led by Adam Lawrence and Anna-Lena Kühner. Two things in particular I took from this event, which shifted my thinking in many ways. The first was the one critical objective we should have when running workshops — that it’s about creating a community. That community may only last for one hour or over three days, but a group of people who trust each other, who can support and hold up each other, who have a common goal — whether that is to learn something or help each other through challenging times — are capable of achieving a great deal. The second thing was the value of dramatic arcs in constructing experience — “the sequence and rhythm of high and low engagement in a piece or performance”. In other words we needed to ensure there was at least one boom, a couple of wows and an ahh at the end.

I listened to a lot of radio during lockdown. Whether it’s Woman’s Hour, Desert Island Discs or the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, every radio show has its own dramatic structure delivered by the same elements week after week, providing surprising and new content within a familiar (and comforting) format. So there was a lot we could learn from a good radio show — except we weren’t broadcasters. This wasn’t about us. Our job simply was to create a safe space where people could talk and share. This would be a space where every voice would be heard, listened to and engaged with, where we could help each other make sense of this ‘new normal’. As we said on the Eventbrite inviting people to the first Gathering:

Our professional and home lives have been turned upside down. How are we coping and adapting? What are we learning as we take on new ways of working and living? How can we support each other?

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How we delivered it

People have asked us for ‘the recipe’. By the time we got past the tenth gathering we probably had one, but up to that point there was a fair bit of trial and error. Looking back on it, this is what we did and what we learned.

Online delivery demands more energy than face-to-face delivery, and from the participant side it can be more taxing in terms of concentration, so we began by aiming for a one hour event. But a couple of times we over-ran. Nobody likes events to over-run. People’s times are precious, so we planned to finish after 55 minutes. The demands of time management during the gathering required all of the following elements to be in place.

Within the 55 minutes we planned a sequence of activities that aimed to create the right atmosphere, maximise interaction, offering variety and some sense of a dramatic arc. In summary the sequence was:

  • Welcome and scene setting
  • Two one-to-one conversations (4 mins each)
  • One four person conversation (4 mins)
  • A guest slot (8 minutes)
  • One four person conversation (5 mins)
  • Silent shout out (3 minutes)
  • Waterfall chat (90 seconds)
  • Finish

Each conversation was followed by people typing key points in the chat window and one of us pulling out themes. Three minutes was allowed for this. Each week we had different topics for conversations. So there was an overall time plan set out minute by minute, and each week we wrote a script the day before the event to ensure that we kept to time.

Four people delivered the Gatherings:

  • Lorri and Mike shared the hosting role — doing the welcoming, introducing each segment, summarising outcomes and talking with guests. Mike also managed the breakout rooms.
  • Barbara managed the waiting room, had responsibility for muting and removing people (not that this was ever needed), oversaw time management, saved the chat window and produced summaries for social media and the Slack group.
  • Hazel managed social media during the event and produced the weekly visual for each event.

Barbara also managed the team’s WhatsApp group. During the event she would use this to say how much we were over-running by so that we could collectively decide where to shave time off to ensure we finished on time.

At our first gathering we asked people what they wanted from the sessions. The five priorities were:

  • Broadening our network (beyond the bubble and beyond the UK)
  • Building relationships
  • Sharing experiences of how we are adapting
  • Reflecting on positives
  • Learning from our experimenting

This helped us to refine the format and the way it was presented — maximising opportunities for one-to-one or small group discussion around what was happening in our lives, but in a positive way. This would not be a place to discuss new methodologies in remote user research, but rather our favourite comfort food and lockdown entertainment, what we hoped we’d never go back to doing, what we’ve learned, what we noticed on our daily walks, and much else. While it focused on the Service Design Scotland community, the desire to go ‘beyond the bubble’ led us to describe it in terms of ‘you don’t have to work in service design and living in Scotland is optional’.

The only policy we had for asking individuals to join us for the guest slot was that they had to be positive in spirit and engaging conversationalists who were doing interesting work. Fortunately we knew many people like that, so we could pull in favours at the last minute. This was not about inviting service design A-listers (which is not say that some of our guests weren’t A-listers) but finding interesting people prepared to be generous in sharing their work and ideas. Talking fast was also an asset, as we only had eight minutes. So we had the conversations planned in advance with our guests.

They ranged from medical students to prominent service designers, with surgeons and people leading change in local government. There were folk from social enterprises and an award winning film maker. Most were Scotland based, but some joined us from Shanghai, Brunei and Athens. They were all wonderful, but if one stands out for me, it was dementia activist Agnes Houston MBE who, as we discussed the anxieties of being locked down, unable to travel, said “welcome to my world”. That we had much to learn from those living with dementia was a significant realisation.

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Lorri Smyth

There were other elements which emerged over the first two or three weeks that helped to define what the Gathering was about and create its atmosphere. These were as vital to the Gatherings as the liver-sausage sandwiches, china mugs and “the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke” were to Orwell’s Moon Under Water.

  • Conversation topics. We would all bring ideas for topics, and we began asking our guests for suggestions for the group conversation following their slot, but the first was always “how has your week been?” One week I tried to change it, but Lorri insisted and she was right. We tried to balance questions that were very broad (mainly for the one-to-ones) with tighter questions to keep the groups of four more focussed.
  • Visual identity. Every week Hazel produced a different variation of a visual that was used on Eventbrite and as the Zoom virtual background for Lorri and I. She generally would feature our guest in the visual.
  • A proper start. Many online events start awkwardly — there’s perhaps a couple of people talking, others feeling self-conscious about seeing themselves on video and not really much sense of entrance. So, the team met with our guest in the zoom room 10 minutes before the start. At 11.57 Lorri and I would cover our cameras, but keep the virtual background showing, Barbara would let people in from the waiting area, and I played our title song — Wade in the Water by the Ramsey Lewis Trio (a title song was an idea that came from radio). This meant we could start bang on 12.01, by which time most people would have enjoyed at least a minute or two of this northern soul classic with its radical empowering history.
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The team and guest Ummi Jameel
  • Borrowed elements. We kept looking around for good ideas that we’d seen work elsewhere. Some of us had attended a remote workshop led by Adam Lawrence where he had used the ‘high fives’ in Gallery View. So we borrowed that. Elsewhere, Hazel had seen the waterfall chat used at the Liberating Structures London online event in April. We borrowed that for the final ‘wow’ which up to that point had alluded us. Every final ‘wow’ needs an ‘ahh’ to follow it, and we found that in a closing song. Millie Small, Bill Withers, Etta James, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, David Bowie and others served us well.
  • Explaining Zoom. Every week I would take two minutes to explain the basic controls of Zoom. These Gatherings were not set up for Scotland’s digerati, but for everyone. Some of these people were very new to the technologies we were now having to use to stay connected, and others may not actually like these technologies at all. Even in week fourteen I had one friend message me to apologise for not coming: “I’m sorry but I just couldn’t figure out this Zoom thing”. When you arrive at Service Design in Government somebody points to the cloakroom and says where the coffee is. This was me doing that.
  • Retro Boards and Padlets. We experimented with interactive boards, especially over the first few sessions. Lorri took a lead on this and some worked really well in capturing people’s experiences. Where Padlet came into its own was the week when #BlackLivesMatter became a global movement. Lorri spoke very movingly about what was happening and the need for us to understand more about Black Lives and their histories in Scotland. To this end she launched a Padlet Black Lives in Scotland (and beyond): “We’ve heard black communities all over the world asking those of us who are not black to “educate ourselves” as to the past and present experiences of black people, as well as the systemic structures enabling racism to continue to go unnoticed or unchallenged. And so, this week we invite you to contribute to a community resource that can be drawn on by all of us.”
  • Use the chat window. With up to 70 people it’s the only way of getting interaction when people are not in breakout rooms, so we tried to maximise its use in a variety of ways — from finding out who was there through to the visual surprise of the waterfall chat. Barbara would also put into the chat window directions for each breakout conversation so that everyone was clear what they were asked to do, and used it to post links and contact details for the guests. The Silent Shout Out turned the chat window into a noticeboard.
  • Randomised coffee trials. In Open Change we had used NESTA’s idea of randomised coffee trials in other projects. Basically you pair people up randomly on a spreadsheet, and they arrange a time for a remote coffee chat for 30 minutes. The next week you shift one column down by one row, taking the name at the bottom and placing it at the top — so you have new random pairings, and they do the same thing. And you just carry on doing it. As Hazel explained when we launched it “it’s a bit like strip the willow”. Barbara administered this every Monday to set up the week’s new pairings for the 40+ people who signed up for it. We intend to continue this at least through the summer, so contact us if you’d like to participate.

The reason we kept refining it and aspiring to deliver an online event that was inclusive, welcoming and worthwhile for people, was because of the wonderful folk who turned up. It varied between 26 and 68 people each week, with most Gatherings between 35 and 50. People were generous, kind and sharing, and clearly valued the experience:

“Cannot give enough praise to this wonderful community of people who just came together and shared; challenges, approaches, honesty and inspiration.”

“It is rapidly becoming one of the highlights of my week”

“Took four weeks before I could look away from work… very thankful for the team hosting online meet-ups.”

“Thank you […] for always being the refresh button of my Thursday :)”

“the sessions have been brilliant. I’ve got zoom fatigue and would definitely not be showing up everytime if they weren’t short of excellent!”

“Thank you for facilitating these [Gatherings] — I really look forward to them each week”

“It’s the diamond in my week”

The end

There are a lot of lessons on how you plan your time, maximise interactions, evolve the format and other prosaic issues that can be taken away from what I’ve described. But the main challenge we faced was that we were trying to provide some sort of connection between people during a crisis that none of us had any prior experience of, without knowing how each other was really feeling or the lives they were living.

People were not just working from home. People were sheltering in their homes during a global pandemic which was killing thousands of people. Some were shielding in isolation, others sheltering while trying to work at the same table as their children were doing school work — or not doing school work. Some found being locked down with others extremely hard. Some found isolation very depressing. Most of us were experiencing periods of anxiety — at times acute. Some of us were terrified at all the uncertainty. Some turned to the bottle, others to Netflix.

I’d like to claim we were applying a design process to providing some sort of connection between people who were experiencing all sorts of different and generally negative emotions. Because we were experiencing many of those same emotions, then it’s fair to say we were more coping than designing. But there were many positive things that came from this experience, and the Gatherings — more by accident than design — captured some of this: a rediscovered valuing of open connection between people, simple acts of solidarity, and a real desire to change how we live in the future.

Our task now is to take elements of the Gatherings and reconfigure them for changing times and changing needs. We will always need spaces to meet and share, spaces to exchange thoughts and ideas, and recent events have shown the unique value of such spaces that are online.

To those who joined us in the Distanced Gatherings we thank you. You were wonderful. We hope that you can work with us in designing and building our next pub with a garden.

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Etta James plays out the 15th and final Distanced Gathering

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