Engaging online during COVID-19 social distancing

Posted May 27, 2020

It is essential to keep projects moving while social restrictions are in place. But how do we engage remotely with people focused on their personal experience of COVID-19?

Best practice principles include creating a plan with a clear purpose and problem definition that blends analog and digital tools and promotes transparent communication - but be aware; this engagement process may require more time and resources.

I wrote this article to share best practice principles for community and stakeholder engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital and analog tools we need for community engagement already exist, so our priority is to focus on the first principles of stakeholder and community engagement. Once we are clear on the purpose of the engagement, the format, questions and process will flow.

— SGS Associate Phoebe Harrison
SGS Economics and Planning Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Be clear on purpose, and be gentle

At this time, it is more important than ever to be clear on the purpose of engagement, and transparent about the level of influence people can have over the outcome or decision. Establishing the engagement purpose is critical.

It is also important to keep in mind that people throughout Australia are currently channelling their energy into managing their personal impacts of COVID-19. We shouldn’t add additional life-changing stressors to people’s lives right now. Where a project is controversial, or if engagement is low on the public participation spectrum, it may be best to postpone the engagement.

When it is appropriate to engage, we need to:

  • Be clear. Inform people that what was planned will go ahead, but that this will happen at a time when we’re more adapted to the new normal.
  • Allow extra time. Give people a longer window to respond to new information. The typical time allowed may not be enough if planned face-to-face activities and information sessions need to be postponed.
  • Remember that many communication tools already exist. Establish channels to respond to people who have questions. Consider redirecting existing efforts into making space for communities to come together and share experiences.

The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) has well-established principles for public engagement that focus on having a clear purpose and communicating the degree of impact the public, or stakeholders can have on the decision.

SGS Economics and Planning Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

New tools

It is essential to test tools before adopting them; software is hard to investigate on paper.

There are numerous tools (many well-established) flooding this space at the moment, but resist the temptation to be innovative for its own sake – consider whether well-worn phone interviews, mail-outs and subscriber lists might also fulfil the purposes you require.

— SGS Associate Phoebe Harrison

To implement new tools, you may need to develop new skills. Digital content creation, user design, marketing and data analytics should all be considered; you may need to bring onboard new departments to design engagement activities.

Your community may need assistance getting online or making use of new tools. Encourage peer-to-peer learning where community members can help each other get online. Again, don’t neglect tools that are already familiar to people – for example, making use of an 1800 phone number for people to register interest or request a call-back, email subscriber lists, mail-outs and project webpages.

There is a real opportunity to reach new and different audiences while people are at home once they adapt to potentially a new way of working.

Practical considerations

When planning for stakeholder workshops or remote meetings, consider that:

  • Online meetings are draining, and attention spans are shorter. Think in blocks of 50 minutes, and give people sufficient breaks in longer meetings.
  • You will need to pre-circulate materials, and you might need to get detailed feedback offline, rather than during the meeting.
  • Meeting formats may shift to place greater emphasis on presenting information and gathering initial impressions. Detailed feedback may require written reviews or one-on-one follow-ups.

Again, the fundamental principles of engagement apply:

  • consider shared values, principles and criteria throughout
  • clarify shared purposes, and
  • match tools to the engagement purpose, and the project decision-making stages.

Acknowledge the context

When the time comes to engage, acknowledge the changed context and what that means for the day. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, so don’t just launch into project-related information without duly recognising the new and unusual context. Establish context, and acknowledge that people may have faced numerous personal challenges over the last few months.

Emerging data suggests that people are starting to think about the future more collectively; the present pandemic has given the community a moment to pause and reset.

— SGS Associate Phoebe Harrison

Systems such as the National Principles for Disaster Recovery can provide a framework through which community-building conversations can occur. For example, a community might collectively wonder: how do we translate what already works under old conditions, and the things we like, into a new environment?

Media channels can sometimes be critical of projects progressing. In these cases, carefully selecting your language is fundamental: be clear on the approach, communicate sensitively, and pitching to the audience. If you believe your project engagement needs to continue, be clear about why and what your plans entail.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Techniques for workshop facilitation

Connecting with people and ‘setting up the room’ is very important. Embrace the theatre of online engagement to get the best out of your stakeholders, and bridge the body language gap created by remote meetings:

  • Run a test: Don’t wait until your actual meeting to test your tech. Run a test meeting with colleagues and test everything – your screen sharing, your activities, your internet connection and headphones/video/camera.
  • Repeat yourself: Remote sessions are replete with distractions. People’s attention spans are shorter in this medium. Plan for around 50-minute blocks at a maximum. You’ll need to repeat instructions several times, including the time you’re giving people to discuss ideas (for example). Explain how long people will have what to expect.
  • Have a backup plan: Have a spare pair of headphones, an alternative internet source (e.g. can you tether to your phone?) and a colleague on the line in case something goes wrong and you drop out.
  • Remain calm: When the inevitable tech glitch occurs, quiet the inner cyclone and remain calm (at least on the outside) while you take the time to fix it. Remember, the audience wants this to go well too. People will be understanding so take the time to work through a solution (see ‘Have a backup plan’ above!). Acknowledge the issue, attend to it, and then get things back on track.
  • Talk ‘through’ the screen: Look at your camera directly (or through the camera), so you’re making eye contact with your audience.
  • Don’t ditch the post-it notes: Have some post-it notes and markers close by – it can still be useful to use these to quickly communicate ideas, add some visual interest while you’re talking and remind everyone that this is still a full-body experience.

Final comments

It is important to keep projects moving while COVID-19 social restrictions are in place. But engagement strategies need to adapt. Refocusing on the first principles of stakeholder and community engagement and having a clear purpose and problem definition is vital. Postponing short-term activities or allowing people more time may be prudent for controversial projects - but be clear why you are taking this approach.

Use the time now to plan and select the right tools for decision making carefully. Explore and test new tools. Test out building some tactility into remote workshops and meetings and embrace the humanness we all need right now. Be prepared and have a backup plan. Work with marketing, digital designers, and data analysts to plan your workshops. Map it out, and include avenues for feedback post-workshop.

Acknowledge the context, and give people time to settle. Recognise that people may have faced numerous personal challenges over the last few months. Above all, remember why we engage and follow the fundamental principles to communicate clearly and respectfully.

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