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How to create people spaces online that breathe and thrive-OLD

By Charlotte Hochman. Photography: Michele Caleffi Reading Time: 7 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 Co-founder & Director of Wow!Labs, an innovation studio that creates results for companies, cities and universities by creating spaces and capacity for innovation.


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