Rapid Virtual Meeting Prototyping in the Age of a Pandemic

Janice Wait

By Janice Wait | April 6, 2020 | Fellowships & Awards

The public health crisis surrounding COVID-19 has escalated the need to create environments online for productive, collaborative, and spontaneous community work and convenings. And in many ways, the approaches and practices we’re experimenting with now will serve as a foundation for improved virtual collaboration well into the future.

With that in mind, we wanted to share some learnings from a recent summit for 25+ Mozilla Fellows from all over the world that we — together with our partners at Simply Secure — had to move online in a very short timeframe (10 days to be exact). In this post, we’ll share:

  • things we considered as we were having to switch gears quickly
  • how we engaged with our community of participants and collaborators in that process, and
  • things we learned as a result of this virtual event experiment.

While this is an example of a rapid prototype for putting on a virtual convening for participants from multiple time zones around the world, many of the things we learned are applicable to events being planned without the same time constraints.

The public health crisis surrounding COVID-19 has escalated the need to create environments online for productive, collaborative, and spontaneous community work and convenings

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Expectations: The first step we took was to re-examine expectations for the Summit experience, and communicate transparently with the participants. We reached out to the fellows to set expectations that there would be an online experience and to understand their priorities. We also recognized that many participants and facilitators would be distracted or less available given the physical, emotional and logistical impact of COVID-19 across their communities, so we thought creatively about how to incorporate those concerns into the planning.

Timing: Though remote, we still wanted to maximize (within reason), synchronous time to support each other as a community, collaborate and share. We chose to hold sessions at a time that would be within reasonable working hours of the global community, and most convenient for those in the UTC timezone, where the majority of the community is located. We also realized that it would not be productive or realistic to expect people to stay engaged in sessions for a full day as we would have done in person, so we reduced the number of session hours to three to fours per day, with breaks built in. We also recorded all sessions and indexed documentation by day and event, for asynchronous participation. The recorded sessions were made available as soon as possible for those participating asynchronously, and shared out via a daily round up email.

  • Key takeaways: Understand that it may take a few days for participants to get accustomed to the event cadence and expectations. Add some buffer time on the front and tail end of a session to provide space for the “hallway conversations” that would happen at a live event — e.g. we found that a 60-minute working session actually needed closer to 75-minutes of scheduled time. Allow for asynchronous participation. Plan for shorter periods of collaboration.
  • Helpful link: Online meeting tips

Creating space to process: One thing that quickly became apparent is that planning for a virtual summit is different than planning a virtual summit during a pandemic. This is to say there was a need to create space for fellows and program staff to voice concerns, recognize collective trauma and grief, and allow space for collective healing. We also recognized the need to keep energy up during such mentally exhausting times, so we incorporated into the session transitions mini movement breaks for chair dances and stretches.

Tools: We investigated a breadth of the tools available for holding remote events, including holding demos with teams from other platforms and assessing what our group had access to or experience with already. One challenge in the tool landscape is that most of the solutions available are designing for the use case of corporate meeting platforms or online conferences, not collaborative workshops. Ultimately, we decided the best decision for this event was to meet people where they are so that we knew the tools would be accessible from a range of different geographies, bandwidth levels, and technological know-how. We also considered what tools we would be able to use for which we could have extra support from our internal teams dedicated to AV/tech support. We decided to use Zoom for holding and recording the sessions themselves, and found the break-out room feature to be particularly helpful for many interactive sessions. We used Google Drive, Docs and Slides for documentation throughout the event, including live collaboration and to enable asynchronous collaborative work, sharing and review.

Facilitation: Although we were meeting online, some practices and techniques of in-person facilitation are critical and need more intentional focus and hands, as you are balancing many tools. To facilitate well online, it takes a team, all ready to respond to the need for the right link, or to handle in the background something that’s gone awry. Particularly if you are leveraging tools like breakout rooms, you may need to have a facilitator per breakout planned in advance, to make sure that participants have the support they need to engage in the activity. A facilitator’s job is frequently physical, thinking about how people enter and navigate a space. Finding a way to leverage muscle memory and facilitate the way you might do in-person can help as the same is true online! Reading body language and enabling people to communicate in multiple ways is critical. Without a way for everyone to share their screen at once, it can be hard to see the work that participants are doing in real time.

  • Key takeaways: Online facilitation requires more facilitators. Multiple forms of communication allow people to participate and learn in multiple ways. Allowing people quiet time to work together silently and in parallel allows folks to collect their thoughts and participate more fully. Also, hold time to debrief at the end of the day/session like you would with an in-person event, and plan to make adjustments as needed.
  • Helpful link: Online meeting tips, MURAL.co Ultimate Guide, Tips for making your Zoom gatherings more private

Content: Finally, some tips on how to consider rapidly adapting programming originally planned for an in-person summit to accommodate a virtual convening. We quickly realized it is not realistic to expect participants to be highly engaged in a full day’s worth of interactive sessions by sitting in front of the computer for eight hours straight. As such, we examined the planned sessions and decided to narrow the content to sessions in which participants had expressed the most interest,were most adaptable to online facilitation, and were most time sensitive to the Fellows needs. Since we have the flexibility to engage this group of Fellows beyond the week of the summit, we decided that some sessions would be better to shift to take place over the next few months. This shift also meant we could make space for more ideas within this format and so we asked the fellows in a post-event survey for ideas and input to help shape the follow-on activities such as guest speakers and peer-to-peer skillshares.

  • Key takeaways: Be willing to cut certain content that would be more difficult to adapt to a virtual environment, and work with your participants to understand the remaining content that would be most useful to them.
  • Helpful link: Designing Interactive Webinars.

As we were closing out the summit, we shared reflections from the week and found ourselves shifting from stress to cautious optimism and leaving with a stronger sense of community. This crisis serves in part as a reminder to the world that we are all one humanity. Even if we aren’t able to connect in physical space, we still need to come together, virtually, to support each other, learn, and iterate. Making the space for the summit actually helped us come together during a very uncertain time, and that community fabric will continue to provide support and strength in the days ahead. We hope that our learnings will help you and your community make the most of this time together.