Designing Great Virtual Gatherings

Interconnected circles

For many of us, this past year wrought havoc on the way we work. Seemingly overnight, I went from leading roomfuls though daylong convenings – replete with cool hands-on design labs, community building activities and awesome food options – to Zooming at my dining room table.  

The future of work seems likely to be, at best, a hybrid of WFH (a pandemic-popularized acronym for Work From Home) and in-person office spaces. In other words, our need to excel at virtual collaboration may well be here to stay.

As an early adopter of on-line communication tools, I was able to make the shift more easily than I anticipated. Here are some approaches I find helpful. 

Welcome in our whole selves 

On a recent call, my client’s husband ambled through the room and handed her a cup of coffee. Earlier that day, on a call with an early childhood collective, two moms held their babies as we talked. Working on-line has diluted the artificial separation between our work life and our home life, and I think that’s a good thing. 

We do this work because we want all communities to be safe and loving places for all to thrive. The traditional workplace, with its unspoken “Leave your true self at the door” conformity unnaturally separates us from this core purpose. This robs us of the greatest strengths we bring to our work: our personal stories, our vulnerability, imperfections and creativity. 

Welcoming in our whole selves can mean beginning a virtual meeting with an explicit acknowledgement that we are working in new ways, and that kids/pets/homelife, our messy rooms and unanticipated interruptions are welcome. It can mean taking the time to do check-ins that matter, such as “In the past week, have you worked more from your head, your heart or your hands?” 

Design for engagement  

  • Create beautiful presentations – Just as one might take time to carefully adorn the table when guests come to dinner, I spend time designing beautiful PowerPoints. Stunning photographs, harmonious font colors, animation, minimal text… PowerPoint has truly become my creative partner. I use quotes to elevate our sense of purpose. For a gathering where people shared stories on why our work matters, I opened with a quote by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson: “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.”                 
  • Engage the senses – To create a welcoming vibe, I’ll often play music as we come on to a call. If the meeting is over 90 minutes long, we’ll have a mid-meeting break to stand up and do a couple stretches to literally keep the creative juices flowing. 
  • Invite interaction – Zoom breakout rooms are a gift in our virtual world. I’ll often create breakout rooms of 2 to 6 people to check-in, discuss what we’re learning, develop recommendations – whatever the work is at hand. Two other on-line apps I’m using these days are Mentimeter, which allows groups to rank ideas and contribute anonymously; and miro for team collaboration. 
  • Have fun – One of the unfortunate side effects of video calls is that it’s hard not to feel self-conscious. I try to lighten the mood by using video to our advantage. We’ll do “jazz hands” to celebrate someone’s contribution, or ask people to bring a favorite mug or a share a totem of their aspirations. One client recreated the pencil passing gag with their team. Having fun is more than just goofing off – it fuels our creativity and connection to one another. 

Stay curious

I live in Montana, where a five-hour drive is not unusual to attend a meeting. Aside from the pleasures of books on tape and some beautiful countryside, it’s a massive expenditure of resources.  When our work pivoted to on-line, I found myself being curious about figuring out how to create great virtual gatherings. Afterall, international corporations and NGOs have been collaborating across continents for years. This inquisitiveness helped me get over the initial reactions change often elicits – denial, fear and avoidance.

Over the past year my work as a community builder, facilitator, trainer and coach has been challenged by our virtual world. I’ve truly appreciated the generosity and risk-taking we’ve all done to continue to connect in meaningful ways. The approaches I’ve shared have helped. Let me know some strategies you’re discovering. 

4 thoughts on “Designing Great Virtual Gatherings”

  1. Nice insights there Deb. Thanks for sharing. I recognise many of your observations. I’m confident that there will be some long-term positive changes once we come through this.

    1. Thanks Sandy! I’m so glad you think so. It’s good to be thinking about future when we have more options for how we gather, and can bring forward what we’re learning in these trying times.

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