The current pandemic affects all aspects of personal as well as professional lives. In academia, collaboration of research teams is being restricted by travel-bans and other safety measures. The Care Operative, a group of 20 international sustainability science colleagues who were planning to attend in-person meetings this March, was prohibited from gathering through COVID-19-related travel restrictions. Thus, the group decided to shift the planned workshop online and adapt for virtual collaboration. In a recently published report, they share their experiences on how to create online workshops that are productive and at the same time engaging, caring, and fun. To this end, they identify dispositions, practices, and techniques that facilitated their positive online interaction.
The report successively focuses on the time before, during and after the workshop. The authors highlight that creating the right setting before the workshop is key. On the technical side, this includes setting up and familiarizing oneself with the necessary hard- and software for each individual attendee and selecting a stable platform for hosting and helpful supporting digital platforms for the workshop hosts. On the physical and mental side, rituals like going for a walk or putting on work attire can help to enter the mindset needed for being in a long-duration virtual workshop. Finally, the authors recommend actively committing to being focused and present during the meeting right before the workshop starts by consciously clearing mental space.
The authors noted a range of interrelated mental, physical and practical workshop dynamics worth paying special attention to during a virtual meeting. First, they suggest opening the workshop by creating a welcoming and safe emotional space. Here, brief check-in rounds, energizers, and a simple restatement of the purpose of the gathering can help charge people’s focus. Over the course of the workshop, ample time for breaks and informal conversations is crucial to maintain participant’s physical as well as mental energy. Break-out sessions are described as a helpful tool for both, enabling non-disruptive breaks and facilitating effective task delegation and group-decision making. Ideas and issues discussed in small groups then need to be reported-out to the plenary where decisions can be taken together. Finally, the authors emphasise the importance of a capable facilitator who is able to steward group conversations and create a productive virtual environment. Here, a facilitator being comfortable with silence was mentioned to be highly beneficial.
Once the workshop was being closed by committing to next steps, engaging in physical activity, and expressing appreciation for the time shared and the virtual space created together, taking time to process the workshop is needed. While some steps are congruent with physical meetings, the authors found that a few interpersonal touches can help create caring virtual connections. Specifically, reaching out to colleagues after the workshop in a more informal way is recommended. Especially when someone seemed to have problems adapting to the virtual format or is facing general difficulties due to the many uncertainties related to the pandemic, a check-in can be highly supportive.
The Care Operative acknowledges that giving detailed advice for every group is tricky as team-specific dynamics, hierarchies and path dependencies can shape virtual possibilities and experiences. Yet, the authors identify one general key principle: fostering the best things about face-to-face sessions and adapting them to online collaboration. They also report one unexpected side-effect of their virtual gathering – the unexpected joy of having created a support system for each other in unsettling times.