insight

Sanna Rådelius

Connecting Online In Times Of Corona

We planned a Gathering for 100-130 people, then Coronavirus happened. Here’s how we designed an event to facilitate connection vulnerability and deep encounters - over a Zoom call.

Emerge Gathering

3.4.2020
There is a crack in everything, that's where the light gets in."
 
This line by Leonard Cohen was the inspiration for the first Local Emerge Gathering, which was co-created with the members of Klustret Ekskäret in Stockholm, Sweden. 

After the Emerge Gathering in Kyiv this past September we wanted to create an event specifically for the Stockholm network, with the purpose to strengthen each other as change agents and enhance our capacities to live the story of a more conscious and sustainable world. It felt like a good theme for a Gathering. 
As change agents, we need to build our capacity to navigate uncertainty.
“The world is cracking. The ways we live and work are no longer serving us, or the planet we live on. We find ourselves in a ‘space between stories’ (Charles Eisenstein), in between the old story and a new one that is yet to unfold."

Yes, a lot of things are cracking, and things will crack even more. As change agents, we need to build our capacity to navigate uncertainty. This means that we need to face the negative emotions, within and between us. We need to learn to hold each other in the chaos. We will not reach the other side, the new story, without dealing with the trauma. The trauma will keep following us until we've faced it and taken care of it. This is what we wanted to explore during the Gathering. How can we support each other on this journey, both through darkness and light? What capacities do we need to build or strengthen to navigate and lead in uncertainty? 

We set out to explore the cracks of ourselves and society. And wow, did we get served! Three weeks before the event, the Corona pandemic struck Europe. We held our breath for a week, but then it was clear, we won't be able to gather the way we had planned.

“After the bigger Emerge Gathering in Kyiv this past September we wanted to create an event specifically for the Stockholm network." Image from the Emerge Gathering 2019.

Who would have thought that this theme would become so suitable for the present moment? We are living in the crack right now, experiencing a global pandemic where nobody knows what is true. It’s disruptive. It's chaotic. It’s paralysing. It opens up new opportunities. We don't know what to expect even from the coming days."

With the world in turmoil, we felt that sense - and meaning- making was even more critical. So we decided to move the Gathering online. For nine days we used all our capacity to learn as much as we could about gathering in a virtual space.

How do we design a structure that allows for connection, vulnerability and deep encounters? How can we support everyone to have a good online participatory experience? How do we design for emergence in a digital space? 
Can you lead improvisational theatre on Zoom? How can we make online-meetings more embodied? What are the technical possibilities of Zoom?
Those were the leading questions that we reached out to our different networks with, and never have we experienced so much nonrivalrous collaboration. This crisis really opened up a door for true co-creation. By asking for help, people stepped in with generosity and a curious mind. 

Collaborative Facebook-groups were started, writing technical manuals together and trying out facilitation methods with each other. Can you lead improvisational theatre on Zoom? How can we make online-meetings more embodied? What are the technical possibilities of Zoom? We embarked on a collaborative learning journey that mutually supported the whole group. I can tell you, it's been a profound feeling, experiencing this!  

So what did we do? First of all, a definition of a Gathering is needed.

“Collaborative Facebook-groups were started, writing technical manuals together and trying out facilitation methods with each other." The poster for the new, online Gathering.

Gathering means to join together. A meeting, on the other hand, is to gather for a discussion. The Emerge Gathering as an event format focuses on participation and community, compared to a traditional conference that has more focus on content and networking. The Gathering is also more process-oriented than goal-oriented. It is designed to enhance connection and co-creation and to hold space for what wants to emerge.

The Gathering can be described as a campfire. But instead of gathering around the fire, we gather around a topic that we are all curious to explore. And through the exploration, we also get to know each other.  

Some of the challenges with gathering in an online-format are:

It takes away the possibility to physically notice people. As a facilitator, you can't energetically ‘feel' the group in the same way, which usually is very important to be able to facilitate an emergent process.
We decided to look at these challenges again, and instead asked ourselves, what opportunities come with this?
As participants, we are not as influenced by norms and peer pressure. "No one will notice if I go and get a coffee...", but YES people will! It can actually be devastating for a group process even online. “I'll just pop in for a bit during the day", yes you can do that if you are participating in a regular conference, but in a gathering of the kind described above it is actually quite intrusive for others. It can also harm the emergent process. 

Meeting people through a screen can be a bit de-humanising, a filter that makes me forget there is a human being on the other side. 

People’s attention span in an online meeting is even shorter than in an offline (and also in offline meetings this notion is severely abused).

"Facilitating online demands that you as a facilitator are really comfortable and calm, and can send out more energy than you get back."

A lot of people have horrible experiences with meeting online: Constant tech failure, poorly designed meetings, audiences with very diverse digital experience and tech skills, to mention a few. 

But we decided to look at these challenges again, and instead asked ourselves, what opportunities come with this? With the help of our facilitator Facebook group we quickly realised: 

“If you need to adapt your Christmas dinner to be vegan - don’t make a vegan Christmas ham, make grilled turnip with mustard. Don’t try to turn a physical meeting into a virtual meeting. Make the virtual meeting the best virtual meeting it can be.”

So we redesigned the whole gathering, to create the best virtual Gathering we could possibly think of. 
To look into the camera is very important to get people to feel seen, but it obstructs you from seeing them on the screen.
“We have designed a structure that allows for interaction, deep encounters, embodiment, learning and fun - online. We will do sense and meaning-making, have plenum sessions as well as break-out groups. The gathering will include connection building exercises, a session of Open Space for you to share your experience and insights, as well as workshops to help us develop our innate capacities to lean into uncertainty and tap into different ways of knowing.” 

To make sure of good user experience, we put together a technical guide that was sent out to all participants a few days before the gathering. We also started the whole gathering with a technical check-in. This was possible thanks to our awesome room-hosts (members of Klustret) that had learnt the Zoom basics just before. 

As things had to be able to change at short notice we also came up with the idea of an ‘emerging program’, which the online format allowed for. We used Google Slides to create it and had this as a ‘work in progress’ during the whole event. 

“We used both break-out rooms and different Zoom accounts."

Initially, it was telling a story about what was about to happen. During the event, it evolved with updated information about Zoom-links etc. And now, afterwards, it is telling a story about what happened, a souvenir and memory for participants to revisit. 

Designing for an interactive experience online was not that difficult. Because of the shorter attention span and the fact that your eyes get tired by staring at a screen, we built in a lot of what we call ‘body reminders’.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, just stand up and shake your body for a bit, focus your eyes on something as far away as possible or stand up and walk around your chair. Preferably every half hour. 

Something a bit trickier to design for is the creation of a safe space for authentic relating. Well, it’s not trickier than IRL, but performing this online demands that you as a facilitator are really comfortable and calm, and can send out more energy than you get back. It might help to be two facilitators working in front of the same computer. 
Going online really offers us the possibility to weave us together globally. Now we have proof that we are able to do it in a very meaningful way. 
Me and my awesome co-facilitator Naima Clevenhag, who also worked with me on the experience design and technical guidance, had a lot of help from each other keeping our energy up and also staying aware and in connection. Because it takes a lot to connect with a group of 100-130 people by staring at a small green dot (computer camera). To look into the camera is very important to get people to feel seen, but it obstructs you from seeing them on the screen.

Another success factor was our production team. We had two tech angels, Pontus Holmgren and Johan Holm, who managed the Zoom room and all other digital platforms we used (Google Slides and Menti.com). We had great teamwork, where they would prepare the break-out rooms and made sure people were called back in time etc. 

We also had a support guru, Magnus Åkerlind, who was your go-to-guy if you had any issues or questions during the Gathering. This was really important for people to feel safe and to not stress out about tech failures of any sort. To have this production team was such a relief for us facilitators and enabled us to keep our focus on the process of the group. We also had the luxury of ‘fluffers', Karolina Palmberg and Belinda Retourné, who made sure we had everything we needed and helped out with whatever came up. 

“Going online really offers us the possibility to weave us together globally."

I think I can speak for the whole team saying that wow, what a joy ride this production was! We've really enjoyed the steep learning curve that the abruptly changed circumstances offered. We are really grateful and proud of what we co-created together with all the participants, who came from all from Australia to Brazil (another gain going online), but with a predominance of Swedes as it was initially a local gathering. We have also drawn a lot of learnings and to mention a few:

Next time we will give more time for reflection individual and together 

We will experiment even more with interactive elements such as walks n’ talks, meditations and maybe things we haven’t thought of yet

This time we used both break-out rooms and different Zoom accounts. To be able to ‘bumblebee’ (go in and out of the various conversations), we had to use different Zoom accounts. This was really tricky and messy, and until Zoom or someone else comes up with a better solution, we’ll probably stick to the break-out rooms, even though that comes with limitations.

So, will we do it again? Hell YES! Going online really offers us the possibility to weave us together globally. Now we have proof that we are able to do it in a very meaningful way. 

The production team.

Thank you all who contributed to the creation of this Gathering. You are all part of the emerging story of a new world. ❤

Some highlights from the participants:

“The feeling of closeness to all participants. Despite the fact that the Gathering was online. Also, the ‘check-out' where one participant said that it feels like I've been standing in front of a painting for a very long time and when I turn away I see the world differently, I don't know what is different yet, but I'm wearing a new set of glasses”

“The whole experience. Loved the open spaces: I attended the one on co-creation. Thomas Björkman's keynote was also a good jolt back to reality.”

“The whole makes the highlight. But the spontaneous dance was lovely!”

“It was a wonderful experience - like meeting my tribe - connecting with people I'Ve met for the first time in a meaningful way.”

Watch a talk and Q&A with Tomas Björkman from the Gathering.

For more info about the Gathering, check out the ‘Gathering folder'.

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