The New World of Virtual Convening

By Ken Saxon   |   October 21, 2020
Ken Saxon meets virtually with a group of local nonprofit leaders who are alumni of Leading From Within’s Emerging Leaders program

Humans are communal by nature. Even for an introvert like me, this pandemic has made me miss “face-time” with friends and colleagues. I, for one, will be very happy when we can be together again without fear of infecting one another. There is no substitute for in-person bonding and collaboration.

Yet in talking with a number of local nonprofit leaders in recent months, I note that there have been lots of learnings and innovations from this forced physical separation. I also sense there will be no going back to the way things were before COVID-19. In terms of how we come together – to convene and collaborate – this global pandemic is changing us.

Over the past decade, I’ve convened many hundreds of local leaders in programs and retreats and conferences – all in-person. This kind of human-to-human gathering is something I take great pride in, and it’s something I’m known for. So, I’m shocked that I am saying this, but “Thank God for the Internet!” As disruptive as physical distancing has been, the impact on our organizations and businesses would have been so much worse without our digital connectivity.

Forced to adapt online, many nonprofit leaders have been surprised how much we have expanded our reach. It turns out there are many invisible obstacles to people attending our typical in-person meetings – geographic distance, access to transportation, childcare and parent care duties, traffic and parking hassles, and even shyness. It’s much easier and more time-efficient to pop into an online meeting. 

With the forced move to digital, many organizations are reaching more people with virtual offerings and meetings than they did in-person before the pandemic. As one example, Sigrid Wright of the Community Environmental Council (CEC) told me that “a lunchtime webinar on electric vehicles drew four or five times more participants as a similar in-person event.” 

When COVID-19 hit in March, CEC delayed its huge 50th Anniversary Earth Day celebration in April to summer. Then, realizing that summer was in no way a sure thing (a good call, in hindsight!), they cancelled the in-person festival and quickly pivoted to virtual. Earth Day is a beloved Santa Barbara celebration, and holding it online was a disappointment. And the organizers had only a few weeks to plane the virtual festival! Despite all that, Wright says views of CEC’s online Earth Day celebration exceeded their normal 30,000 in-person attendees.

Virtual meeting platforms like Zoom provide a diverse set of tools to engage people. Wright talked about the chat box in Zoom, and how it has allowed for CEC to respond to more many more questions from webinar participants than they could at an in-person education session. Lori Goodman of Isla Vista Youth Projects (IVYP) mentioned how easy it has been for her group to record webinar sessions and post them online so that even more people can view them, and at a time that’s convenient for them.

Jordan Killebrew, Director of Communications at the Santa Barbara Foundation, told me about how the foundation used technology to quickly pivot their work environment from in-person to virtual. He said, “with so many tools like Slack, Google Drive and project management platforms like Asana, Trello and the like, we have been able to mold our virtual workspace to be more efficient, organized, and dare I say fun.”

Some things are definitely more challenging when you can’t be together in person. For one, it’s more difficult to manage the human element and to build trusting and caring relationships in a virtual space. Lori Goodman of IVYP told me she’s found that “it’s much harder to build new relationships online. The work of engaging face-to-face, breaking bread together, having a natural give and take, is lost in most virtual spaces.”

Another thing that can be challenging in a digital environment is to hold people’s full attention and focus. It’s way too easy for participants to multi-task or otherwise check out in an online environment. Thus, virtual meetings and gatherings require skillful facilitation. I myself have attended four trainings on virtual facilitation in recent months, and I’ve learned a whole new set of skills and approaches to help keep people engaged and connected in a digital meeting environment.

The good news is that it is possible to lead effectively in a virtual meeting space. However, you can’t just do online what you did in-person. Quality virtual convening requires a somewhat different approach to group dynamics and engaging agendas. Yes, we old dogs must learn some new tricks if our organizations and initiatives are to thrive online.

When we get beyond the threat of COVID-19, why won’t we just revert to the way things were before the pandemic? Because there are too many good things that virtual convening enables that we won’t want to lose. It’s cheaper, more time-efficient, easier to pull off, requires less real estate and catering and staffing, and can engage more people from a much larger geographic area.

But the limitations of virtual convening are real, as well as the oft-heard complaint about “Zoom fatigue.” My guess is that post-COVID, we will find a balance between virtual and in-person convening. We’ll get much more thoughtful about which method of convening we use for what objective. When we bring people together in person, we will know why we are choosing that, and we’ll be much more intentional about how we use that time and space.

Will some people continue to office remotely? Yup. And many organizations will move to hybrid set-ups that require less office space and emphasize collaboration and interpersonal connection and shared space when people are together. I expect we’ll see many fewer private offices and assigned cubicles. Well managed, a setup like this should be more productive, more cost-effective, and greener (with less traffic and better air quality).

I think one final question about our future is among the most interesting – what will happen to handshakes and hugs post-COVID? Some I’ve spoken to think they are gone for good. Many others disagree. I do feel that if we lose human touch, something substantive will be lost. We already have too much disconnection, alienation, and loneliness in our contemporary society. For my part, I hope this is something we hang on to.

But until it’s safe for the real thing, virtual hugs to you all.


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