2020 has seen huge changes in the way we all work. Mark Walton explores what it’s been like to move all of our work online this year and the tools that have helped us make it work.

Like everyone else this year has seen a huge shift in how we undertake our work.

So much of what we do at Shared Assets is about facilitating groups of individuals to develop plans and ideas collectively. The tools of our trade are flip charts and post-it notes and such sessions often involve groups huddling over a shared table. Obviously it may be a while before we are all safe and comfortable with these kinds of activities so we’ve had to learn new tools and techniques.

As a small, flexible and self managing team we were already doing a lot of internal collaboration work online using tools such as Google Drive for document sharing and collaboration, Slack for our internal communications and Zoom for video calls. Since lockdown first started we have also been using Teams and Jitsi for video calls and have found Miro and JamBoard to be great online whiteboard tools enabling us to do all kinds of exercises we usually do in workshops like the Golden Circle, Business Model Canvas and Balanced Scorecard – anything we might usually do with post-its and flip charts basically.

Internally we have also experimented with Loomio. It’s proved more useful for longer form deliberation and asynchronous decision making – like this generative decision making process from Percolab – than a short-form, fast moving tool like Slack.

Through effective and experimental use of these different tools we’ve managed to keep feeling like a team – and even to successfully recruit and induct two new team members – despite only meeting face to face a couple of times since March.

Externally we’ve continued to work with communities undertaking ambitious land and building projects. As a support provider to Local Trust’s Big Local programme we’ve been particularly impressed by the way that Big Local areas have both extended their services to support their communities in a time of crisis but also continued to develop major building projects and joint ventures including: securing funding for a new community hub, setting up a new organisation to develop a new mental health drop in centre, and securing a lease on an underused industrial site to develop a new STEM skill training facility.

Our local authority clients have been more aware than ever of the value of their green spaces to health and wellbeing, and whilst community engagement has been limited it has been possible to undertake some consultation through social media and streaming channels.

Some things have worked really well. Zoom – with all its quirks of muted mics and dodgy internet connections – has felt like the place we have all spent most of the year. Holding events that would usually be face-to-face, like Land Drinks, online also enabled us to connect with people from much further afield. Whilst it worked pretty well for workshops if everyone was sat at a separate screen it was less satisfactory on a one-to-many basis e.g trying to engage a socially distanced group using one laptop in a community hall. On these occasions we usually required one person to act as a relay – passing messages back forth to the larger group which didn’t really feel satisfactory for anyone but did get the job done.

Other things worked less well. All-day or multi-day events online were extremely draining and worked much better when split into smaller sessions. Zoom and its equivalents also missed the ‘flow’ of a natural event where you might dip in and out of conversations, or be able to quietly back away from a conversation or session that wasn’t of interest and join something else that was. Getting the balance right for different people’s levels of comfort with new technologies, and the intensity of concentration required for online interaction, also took some navigating.

Our top tips at the end of a year of experimentation include:

  • short sessions / decent screen breaks
  • having music playing at the start of online sessions as people join
  • using ‘claps’ or some other marker for the start and close of a session
  • using the chat function for participation and enriching the content of sessions
  • ‘shared but separate’ Zoom activities – e.g. all taking a walk during a break and sharing observations / something we found when we restarted
  • mixing it up – using different tools and platforms – phone, Zoom, Miro etc
  • finding a shared activity to do with your hands – like origami – helped with concentration and a chance to share and compare efforts at the end of the day!

We’re currently experimenting with Gather as an online space that allows for a more natural flow of interaction in a shared online environment – it’s been fun having team meetings in a virtual park!

Overall we’ve been amazed at how effective these tools have been and how high the level and quality of interaction has been. But we’ve also really missed real life interaction. In particular the conversations that happen in between activities or over a practical task, hugs from old friends and colleagues, the ‘sense’ of dis/comfort, movement and agreement in a facilitated meeting, and the spontaneity that happens when we are all together, co-creating the future.

Whilst we anticipate continuing to use these tools to make meetings more effective, efficient, cheap, accessible and fun in the future we’re hopeful that before long we’ll be back with the flip charts and post-it notes – and in particular that we will soon be back on site with practitioners seeing the work literally happening on the ground.

In the meantime we’ll see you on a screen near you in 2021!

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