Convening Virtually: Embracing Change and Community

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Convening Virtually: Embracing Change and Community
By: Carolyn Peters, Learning Services Associate, Philanthropy New York

What once would have been an instantly viral video has now become all too familiar: While leading our Learning Services’ virtual team meeting one morning, my bedroom door was flung open by my 15-month-old niece as if she were running late for her close-up and Zoom bombed the team with a showcase of all six of her baby teeth. Everyone on screen couldn't stop laughing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink and readjust the way we do work. We have very quickly learned to adapt and be kinder to one another for the personal “intrusions” that come into our professional lives. And we’ve learned to welcome it!
This September, my colleague, Shamira Lukomwa, and I led a session entitled, Beyond the Tools: Tips and Tricks for Facilitating Virtually. Upon reflecting on the lessons that I shared then, I am realizing how much more I’ve grown and learned just in the last three months. As we approach year’s end, let’s reflect on what we have learned together with you, our PNY community.
Be Flexible
An interesting aspect of planning “Beyond the Tools” was that we were able to reflect on what it means to plan a successful meeting while planning a convening ourselves. This helped my colleagues and I remain cognizant of the key pieces of advice that we shared: be flexible. Convening virtually embodies a microcosm of the ways in which COVID-19 has forced us to become flexible with our schedules, preferences, and work styles. When technology doesn’t work as planned, as often is the case, we must reassess the need for it and adjusting the flow of the meeting accordingly. In this way, how one achieves the meeting objectives must, temporarily, become less important than achieving those goals. Factoring in time for transitional periods such as closing breakout rooms, switching between shared screens, and requesting feedback through chat creates room for this flexibility. 
Preparing for a successful virtual meeting may also require flexibility if you are accustomed to being a sole facilitator. Virtual meetings have a variety of moving parts that participants do not see when transitions happen as planned. Collaborating with colleagues to assign roles such as a technical lead to launch polls and share screens and participant tracker to share prompts in the chat are key to engaging For example, having my colleagues share their screen helped me focus on the specific points and anecdotes that I planned to share.  
When thinking through the facilitator roles and timing of virtual convenings, you may find preparation for a successful convening means that you will spend more time talking about the meeting than you will be actually in the meeting. Anticipate that things may take longer than you initially expect – in a world where many work schedules entail back to back virtual meetings, few are opposed to receiving extra moments of free time.
Be Curious
While demonstrating the various ways a facilitator can do a virtual temperature check, I shared a series of photos that I thought embodied various emotional states. One of our attendees was so kind as to notify me through chat that one of the images, which I understood to be a peace sign, was understood as a rude gesture in the United Kingdom. As virtual work allows us to connect to peers across time zones and continents, cultural awareness has become even more important. 
Another point that I shared was to not worry over the hiccups or mistakes. However, upon receiving this news, it was difficult for me to ignore that pit in my stomach that forms when I hear something didn’t work as planned. With the framework of curiosity in mind, however, I was able to work through this fear and approach this moment as a learning opportunity. (Also seeing that we didn’t lose the engagement or enthusiasm of our participants during hiccups ultimately confirmed that mistakes will look and feel bigger for facilitators than they will for participants.)
This experience cemented the understanding that the most successful convenings are those in which multidirectional learning takes place: with participants learning from facilitators, facilitators learning from participants, and participants learning from one another. In sharing what I learned, I also became aware of what I didn’t know, creating a fantastic growth opportunity for my colleagues and myself. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to rethink how to forge partnerships and connections outside of the lunch dates, coffee dates, and happy hours that I’ve become accustomed to. This time last year, I also wouldn’t have been able to share what I know about facilitating meetings virtually because compared to what I’ve learned, I knew very little. As we continue to explore what virtual meetings can offer us, I aim to embody the curiosity that inspires my 15-month old niece to throw open my bedroom during staff meetings. While she does not fully know what is on the other side of that door, she opens it with energy and enthusiasm every time.
Find More By

News type