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How to create people spaces online that breathe and thrive

By Charlotte Hochman. Photography: Michele Caleffi Reading Time: 8 minutes

People need to connect. Organizations that create value know how to answer that need: they bring people together. How does this translate in the current turbulence which is shaking the world, where half of the world population is confined? Quite simply: we need to create new meaningful spaces and events to connect to each other… and these need to be online.

If nothing else, you need to create these spaces to keep your pool of users engaged with your organization – whether your users are students, beneficiaries, partners or customers.

In the best of cases, you can also use these moments to give them strength and resilience to go through these strange times and build a new balance that will outlive the crisis, allowing them to find new value in what you provide.

You’ll be part of the solutions of the post-COVID-19 world.

So how can your organization be a part of the solution? Learn to create and host spaces that are inclusive and incite people to be the best of themselves. For that, you must get in touch with their needs, not push through your own agenda. You must provide a space for depth and joy. You must make the space look like them.

Moving physical events to happen online is not a solution in itself. We have all been part of physical gatherings that have moved online and that have felt uncomfortable. These experiences may be more impersonal, less warm, or even draining. Technology may feel like a barrier between the facilitator and the participants. Participants may not be able to interact freely with each other. The experience may allow participants to zone out too much for people to fully benefit from each other’s presence.

One of our biggest challenges as a society is to make collective spaces inclusive, safe places where personal potential can blossom – whether they are physical or online. The approach to online spaces shared here is particularly designed with this objective in mind and has been tested across a variety of cultural norms and organizational cultures, to be a common denominator where most people can access the best of themselves and be fully present to each other. Because new ideas and connections can only spring from that place within us all.

The principles below will empower you to create interactive online events that enable a meaningful, memorable connection from 5 to 50 people- and potentially many, many more once you get the hang of it. These principles are for immersive, interactive experiences that fully engage the participants– they are not for one-way knowledge transfer to passive audiences. These experiences can last anything from 30 minutes to 4 hours, and rely on videoconferencing tools such as Zoom or equivalents, depending on your needs. Each principle below is followed by practical tips to move you from theory to practice.

This is a moment to be there for others. Let’s role model and embody what we want to see happening.

#1 Don’t let tech be a wall: create a precise, playful space for others

As host, assume participants don’t know what to do. Be directive: when should people have their videos on, mute themselves, rename themselves, go in gallery mode to see all the other participants? Be their gentle but firm guide to creating the experience, by guiding each step of how they should use the technology. Vagueness does not work in crafting a digital experience.

Have a B-plan if your connectivity gets lost: options include having a co-host who can kill time until you come back up; planning alternative internet access; or continuing with voice only without video (the participants should keep their video). When it goes wrong, stay calm and good-humoured, mind your body language and voice, and demonstrate optimal collaboration with your team. You’ve got this!

Create a tight-knit event team. Convene the event team at least 30’ before the starting time.  If your event is tech-rich, test screen-shared presentations, timers, polls etc. before that, so you then have plenty of time to go through the flow together, meditate or pick up the energy by visualizing success. That should be the last thing you do together before you open the doors.

#2 Reproduce the sense of being present that people have in a physical space

Open the doors 10 minutes before starting time to welcome early birds with light chat and -figuratively- warm coffee. Use the first 5 minutes after the start time for arriving fully, then close the doors and pick up the desired pace. 

Get out the red carpet: as in physical spaces, the threshold is gold. Open and close the event in a way that all participants can see each other as they come in, by directing people to gallery mode and not sharing your screen. Give them time to do so. Celebrate collective presence. Call out people by their name, have a quick personal word, make them comfortable, don’t leave them sitting on the edge of the couch.

Get people on the same pitch. To start and end, ask a simple question that each participant answers. This enables them to be fully present. This could be “what are you leaving behind you to be here?” to start and “what are you taking away with you?” at the end. If the group is under 20 people, each participant can say a word- literally one. Over 15, make them write on a piece of paper, count to 3 for everyone to show at the same time, and give an overview of what came up by reading out a few examples.

#3 Learn to hold a plenary space for people to share and inspire each other

Go slow and fill people’s cups: as groups get bigger, get creative about how to slow down the rhythm to be effective as a whole group. Pacing, music, moments for silence or mindfulness together- we are all collectively learning to weave them in. Experiment with these. Always provide an inspirational element before you close the session: a poem, an image, a cartoon etc. Be generous and replenish people’s energy after a plenary, as they are draining. Use break-out rooms (smaller spaces) for people to get back their energy, before coming back together again – see below for creating these smaller spaces.

Guarantee interactivity: for big groups, pick a team member who will be reactive to the participants’ needs by being present on the chat function and noticing when people raise their hands. They can jump in to bring anything needed to your attention and increase interactivity, while you hold the main space.

Make conciseness an explicit rule of the game when people in the group are sharing: ask for answers to be under 30 seconds for example. They will get better at it with time!

#4 Create corners for intimacy and peer sharing

Give space and time for a deeper connection
Use the “breakout rooms” function of video conferencing tools to create small spaces for deep exchange- an acute need in these stressful times. Either distribute people intentionally in rooms or assign them randomly through the tool. For peer support, 2 is company and 3 is a crowd: form pairs if you can. For lighter exchange, icebreaking or socializing, trios work well. As an absolute minimum, count 3 to 5 minutes per participant to share, and add a couple of minutes on each end to greet and wrap up.

Keep the small spaces in synch
People can ask for help by calling the host for support: show them how to do that before they break out. You can broadcast messages to all breakout rooms, use that typically to give instructions, such as prompts for the exchange, or tell people when they are halfway through if they need to swap roles.

#5 Invite the whole body, not just the brains

Use your body wisdom: Make sure you are more than a brain, encourage as full a physical presence as possible: point the camera to your torso as well as face. Be aware of your body language, including moments when the participants are busy.
If you’re tired or need stretching, the others probably need it too. Address it explicitly and show the example even if it wasn’t planned- trust your body, it may be wiser than the rest of you right now.

Keep other people’s bodies happy: Remind participants in the invitation to the event to prepare a glass of water and some nibbles, or a glass of wine and peanuts, depending on how you want them to feel and on the event length. For events over 90 minutes, propose moments of silence or breathing together, schedule moments where you guide stretching or participants can get up. Respect physical intimacy: people can put their cameras off to do so if they want.

#6 Make joy the centrepiece of your space

Identify when release happens: People will often laugh or compare notes spontaneously, outside of moments that you planned for sharing or relaxation. Let it happen, don’t cut in to facilitate from the top. It’s needed release. It’s trust, it’s joy. Cherish it, it means people are fully present. Gently bring back to the flow you need when you feel it’s the right moment, and catch up any time as needed.

Leave people with joy: Remember that thresholds are gold? Enable people to go out in style, with music and lightness. Unmute everyone to say goodbye, share sound from your device and put on, for example, an energizing tune so people can dance out. That joy, right there, is a large part of how they will remember the experience. It’s also a great moment to capture the moment via screenshot if you want to. As in your house, be the last one in the space when people leave.

* * *

If taking part in moments of learning, sharing and celebration is a deep human need, we are collectively teaching ourselves ways of creating them without physical proximity. This is a definite leap forward in how relationships – and organizations- evolve. It is also an opportunity for tribes to include new voices as they reach beyond traditional definitions of belonging, such as geography.

What new spaces are you creating, and how are you getting along with these principles? Let us know- thankfully, good practices are contagious too.

Charlotte Hochman is the Executive Director of Wow!Labs, accelerating innovation for companies, cities and universities in emergent situations. She has founded incubators and designed curriculums for leading institutions. Charlotte is a Fulbright scholar, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD, Designer-in-Residence at CCA in San Francisco, a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader, and a panelist at Obama’s Presidential Summit. Discover her work and access her guide "People spaces: How to create, convene and take part meaningfully in new spaces online”.

Comments

5 Comments

  1. Shelley Meagher

    Reading this advice was almost as good as talking to you! Like conversations with you it inspired me, made me think, and made me reconnect with the values which are most important and fundamental to me. Thank you.
    For my purposes the advice which was most helpful was
    – Create a tight-knit event team
    – Get out the red carpet
    – Get people on the same pitch
    – Use music and moments of silence
    – Play a tune for people to dance out to and make sure they leave with joy.

    Reply
    • Charlotte Hochman

      Thank you for your feedback Shelley- I’m so glad this can help the college navigate the turbulence!

      Reply
  2. Charlotte Hochman

    We are receiving comments from different channels as this piece has been circulated widely. Here is a compilation of them so far. Please keep them coming, we love to hear your news.

    I absolutely love this article! Haven’t read something so concrete and inspirational in a long time. E.H.

    Terrific advice on running immersive online events, I’m forwarding to the team right now S.M.

    Thank you for the article. . . some very useful pointers in here. There is a lot of discussion about the “hard” side of meetings (making sure the tech works etc), but not so much about taking care of others. Well thought through! L.T.

    So glad this was passed on to me by my colleague. You have obviously gone lots of thinking on this. Thank you for sharing. R.W.

    We are all moving up a steep learning curve. I have found the intensity of Zoom meetings running across the day quite draining. I also find the need to be spot-on with timing quite a tough discipline, especially when hosting.
    And I think it is important to have a neutral backdrop and good lighting, particularly with larger numbers of participants. Neutral because I don’t like everyone seeing into my room and good lighting – because what’s the point in having video if you are looking at a silhouette.
    I have chaired two all-day Board meetings in Zoom and attended a number of senior government policy meetings. I’ve also delivered webinars, most recently with 400 people attending – and I lost the ability to read and respond to the number of questions and comments!
    So I shall build in your advice. D.G.

    I absolutely loved this! Thank you! Touching! Technical! Grounded in the earth and reaching the stars. Beautiful. Thank you thank you! A.P.

    Thank you so much Charlotte, very inspiring read! Yes we are all experimenting right now and I fully share your approach to make digital conferences a wholesome experience involving all our senses and especially humor! I already shared it with our team and hope we will translate much of it into our digital space. I.C.

    This is excellent! Thank you 🙏🏽 N.M.

    Thank you for sharing your insights on interacting virtually and immersively. These are very useful.

    You piece is very timely as I am co-designing a virtual gathering next week for over 50 people and will apply many of your suggestions. C.R.

    Thanks Charlotte, excellent tips to share B.G.

    This is wonderful and I’ve just sent it to my team. T.R.

    Reply
  3. Charlotte Hochman

    We are stunned by the incredible initiatives you are all applying these principles to, from university outreach, to online theatre workshops, including teaching higher education courses, to facilitating groups for creative women. This is awesome! Thanks for sharing so generously with your teams. Please keep your comments coming!

    I absolutely LOVE this! Practical, useful, straight. There is a way to make #onlineteaching fun, light, insightful and impactful! Thanks for sharing! R.W

    This is great Charlotte, thank you for posting! We have started running our participatory theatre workshops online which is a great challenge we are enjoying and that seems to be going well – and these are some great tips for us thank you! C.W.

    “you must get in touch with their needs, not push through your own agenda”… striking that balance, between a goal to achieve and making the path to the goal not a push, but a hand holding of sorts, that’s the key. Nice! and thanks for sharing. J.H.

    Great! But with 6 hrs+ online class a day, it’s getting a real challenge 😅J.O.M.

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece Charlotte Hochman – really inspiring. 💡 I can warmly recommend our members here to read your hands-on advice – super useful and concrete tips for those who host online events! 🤓 T. E.

    Totally agree. I think if we have a learner-centric approach and focus on crafting an experience for them rather than pushing our content we are on the right path to creating impact. E.H.

    I loved this – thank you!
    I loved the idea that online is not enough – that we have to relearn our vocabulary of being together online. I think that is so true.
    I also felt in what you wrote that you were pushing towards thinking (as usual) about space sharing in general.
    What can we learn from this time about how to be together in any space? Everyone is having to work that out – even having to be by oneself makes you think about it. Some days it’s amazing to be on my own and some days the air feels like pillows and I could suffocate! I’m thinking about empty and shared space a lot at the moment and this really helped. B.M.

    Thanks for your message. Your article is really great. I am going to share it with my colleagues. A. D.

    Thanks a lot for this – very precious insights, and it really helps to set the bar higher for the interactive, enriching online experiences we should all be aiming for during this time! P. H.

    Thank you for your article, very interesting! I forwarded your article to my colleagues.
    Like many organizations right now, we are organizing online events and some of your insights are very helpful, like the one around how to start and end well your events. R.C.

    I found the attention to beginnings and endings useful, and we plan to try using music at these points at an online webinar in a couple of weeks. A.N.

    Thank you – I found this very useful. It’s particularly timely because I’ve been thinking about how to run larger and more formal events in relation to outreach work we are doing in our department at the university. We’re at the stage of identifying ways to try to capture some of the magic of access summer schools and open days for Year 12 students, without being able to bring them to campus, which is tricky. I’ve sent the link on to a colleague in the faculty who I’m working with on this.
    We’re teaching the students’ tutorials, classes and workshops online, which I’ve found has been working really well. There are little tips here that definitely chime with what we’re trying to translate online. I have found myself doing a lot more ’rounds’ when teaching in classes, to ask everyone to contribute one thing, just because the usual technique of looking at someone to encourage them to speak doesn’t work. I like the attention the blog gives to beginnings and endings, and will try out the idea of unmuting everyone at the end to say goodbye. S.P

    Your piece comes at the right moment since I just co-founded a collective of creative women. We are still in the early stages and I am sure I will get some inspiration out of your words before facilitating our next onine meeting. Thank you! M.R.

    Nice article, I love the plan B and the resourcefulness in general 🙂 Y.W.

    Thanks for sharing! It was a very nice and thoughtful read J, very relevant to our work! K.D.

    I just wanted to thank you deeply for this kind Birthday present, yes it was yesterday, and I was glad to read your insightful lines 🙂 This will be super useful to apply to the online workgroups we have set up with the non profit I co-founded to make my main business more impactful. Thank you! N.O.

    What incredible insights and perspectives you bring. It’s amazing! I really enjoyed reading your piece. This represents so much of what we believe. O.S.

    Reply
  4. Cerulean

    Riffing off B.M’s comment (neat touch bringing the social comments back to the blog btw): “I loved the idea that online is not enough – that we have to relearn our vocabulary of being together online”

    I think it’s so true that relearn vocab is needed.
    One of the reasons why Facebook was so destructive to society, as I set out in my early ‘net:work?’ blogs @ https://FlipPh.one/fulbright was that they borrowed many concepts/words from real life & slapped them onto a meagre digital product.
    ‘Moodily Scroll & Click’ masqueraded as ‘Like’ ( as in the touch of a friends hand in a high-5 ).
    ‘Mutual Passive Surveillance Partner’ masqueraded as ‘Friend’ (as in the one whose hand you touch).

    You’re advice shows a more mature scepticism about what can be realistically acheived in a digital space. I run 3 weekly livestreams in lockdown (https://CeruleanSounds.com/lockdown-live), and try to make them interactive, but there are limits to this in a textual chat box on YT!

    I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on hybrid events, as that is what I & many others want to explore post-quarantine. Check out the brilliant Marcus John Henry Brown (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bh1bqowB_QQ) on his thoughts on the rare occasions they might work . What do you think Charlotte?

    Your fellow Fulbrighter,

    Laurence (w4rner) Warner
    aka Cerulean

    Reply

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