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The new normal: Designing good online working practices; mind-hiving the experts.

The power of collective thinking is at its very best when you can call on people who are all grappling with the same challenges to share what you’ve seen, learnt and failed at. This is particularly true of a network of incredible designers, systems thinkers, strategists, researchers and communicators. We all design and lead learning experiences, carry out research and depth interviews, facilitate workshops and manage teams. The collective of independent leaders was formed as a space to enable mind-hives, support and creative collaboration. It is also crucial for shared learning and fourteen of us came together to pool our knowledge about what “excellent” looks like when it comes to online experiences and how this can, and should, shape our design processes going forward.

The move to online working over the last few of months has been a bumpy one. From the technical issues including the lack of bandwidth to the not so technical, getting yourself off mute. It has also come at a price as “zoom fatigue” and the mind’s overload at picking up facial and non-verbal cues means that people find themselves exhausted at the end of the day. Meetings aside though, for some of us, much of our work is dependent on bringing people together to ideate, to unpick often difficult subjects, and to enable creative environments for cracking complex subjects. How we adapt to using the technology available to us is not just about one-way dialogue but often involves designing safe spaces where people feel empowered to share, to be vulnerable and inspired to imagine change.

Can this be done as the world turns increasingly virtual and isolated whilst simultaneously calling out for meaningful connection?

There can be a tendency at the moment to overcompensate and over designing virtual meetings and workshops to demonstrate value and create “an experience” can take over. Given the rich array of types of interactions, here are some of our learnings/ tips for you to take inspiration from and add to. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but highlights some of the good practices that we’ve either seen others do or have used ourselves; tried, tested and evolved. Even as lockdowns ease around the world, we know that digital working is likely here to stay so I'm sharing here our learnings so that we can all deliver better, and smarter.

1. Thinking beyond one-way communication; supporting people to get the most out of a virtual session.

Create connection: Face-to-face workshops tend to start with an ice-breaker, virtual sessions should be no different; whether a one-minute collective breathing exercise or a round robin that checks-in to all participants, now more than ever, feeling connected is crucial for setting the scene. Tried and tested ice-breakers that work wonders when face-to-face can actually work virtually too if given the right space. For example, it can help to put people into pairs in virtual rooms at the very beginning to learn about each other and then introduce each other in the plenary so that people 1) don’t feel pressurised to talk about themselves 2) participate in active listening from the go and 3) hear someone else talk about them.

Create space: The ability to use technology to break into groups is a game changer when designing workshops. This allows for the organic conversations to happen that would have been possible in person. By giving your session time for group conversations and collaboration allows for people to sit with the issues that you’re trying to get to the bottom of.

Conscious design: Understand the ethics of research techniques and what the implications of these are when switching to a virtual setting, for example has what is appropriate changed and what do you now need to be aware of to create inclusive spaces which might not have been a factor in person? For example, do materials need to be in different formats or do you need to think about font sizes for those that may have learning difficulties or are visually impaired? Can using a screen change the experience for people in ways that you may not have previously imagined?

2. Participant wellbeing; what do we need to think about when creating safe spaces

Enable the right environment: Be aware that for some interviews (where people may be asked to speak to their own experiences or vulnerabilities), voice calls may provide people with the space to share more openly without pressure of “being seen”. It helps to ask the person what would work for them and be conscious that by reducing the senses involved, you may actually gain deeper insights. Build-in longer time in your diary for the session just in case it takes time for participants to warm up and share - generally offer 30-45min slots but block in an hour in your own diary.

Build in multi-dimensional formats: Multiple shorter conversations may in fact work better to capture depth and allow for reflections whilst also allowing quieter participants the opportunity to speak and be heard. It may also work to do one-to-one interviews after a group session to allow for thoughts and feedback that the online session wasn’t able to capture or you may want to recreate the “catch up afterwards” moment by staying back for those that want to reflect on something or get any clarifications.

Take a break: For longer workshops, tutorials or conferences build in breaks so that people can have comfort breaks, get a cuppa or check on their kids - letting them know up front that these times are built-in to the session will help people be present and relax into a three hour ideation session much more calmly.

3. Good Housekeeping; the basic do’s and don’ts to run smooth virtual sessions

Prep right: Think about what can be shared before the session so that people come into a workshop equipped to share and connect in an informed way. This can be as low-tech as sharing a pdf before the session; setting questions to think about or by providing templates for them to populate in advance to asking participants to use video or audio journaling to capture thier thoughts, feelings or insights.

Be prepared: Test the tech, and then test it again - it sounds simple, but often causes the biggest amount of stress before you’ve even started. Given all the different engagement, mapping and ideation tools out there, put in the time to familiarise yourself with the tech. It’s also really helpful to have a “co-host” and a spare pair of hands available to support and ALWAYS have a plan B up your sleeve just in case.

Time to breathe: Death by powerpoint somehow feels more intense on a screen so if you’re designing break-outs to mix things up, then allow people the time to settle in to sharing virtually. It can be harder for some to open up on a screen so build in time to make break-outs truly meaningful, we’ve found that 20-25 minutes is a good base.

Other tools in the box: There are a whole range of digital tools that are now available to help us create engaging and interactive virtual spaces. Don’t be shy to look to gaming, VR or video to help your participants tap into different emotions or thinking. Polls and other feedback tools are great ways to split sessions, to engage participants by shifting the energy and to test assumptions.

However you’re using your screen to connect and deliver great work at the moment, rest assured that others are learning and evolving with you. Depending on the scope and context of your work naturally, try to consciously bring in the personal and the fun into the session. I’ve been to two events in the past week that have used dance (whilst talking about the sustainable development goals) and musical “commercial breaks” (when talking about the power of losing)..we don’t have to lose our sense of humour even if we’re in the middle of global craziness.

The power is in sharing what works as well as what doesn’t so that we can all manage that little bit better. For me, one of the biggest challenges so far has been moderating a panel discussion with five panellists and 200 participants without being able to see even one - I thought I was hilarious naturally, no one said anything to the contrary (they were all on mute), so I’ll take that as a personal win.

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