Alone online, but still together

Designing a responsible online company gathering means pushing back on machine-powered communication with the things that make us human.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been helping clients think through how to tackle conferences, away days, and other moments of important togetherness in a time—for many of us—of being painfully apart.

Here are some things we’ve learnt.

Start with the emotional outcome you want

A lazy trope of the event planning is ‘writing from the Keynote out’. We all get a bit punch-drunk on keynotes: big words on slides; a rousing signal from the top of our organisation; a new phone announcement now and then. When we start to plan a day for our teams, an opening leadership keynote is an alluring starting point.

Befitting a thought-piece on the internet, I’ll both chassé alongside the etymology, and (finally) make use of my music degree. A “key note” should be the tonic at the heart of an event: a place you can begin or land, that acts to ground dissonance you have explored, or themes you have varied.

While starting with a key note is a powerful statement of ‘home’, and focus. Resolving to the key note in music is emotional—it’s the ‘amen’ in hymns and the landing at the end of choruses and cadences.

Why should it be any less emotional outside of music?

Thinking through an event as a narrative with an arc is a familiar approach for many. What we’ve found especially powerful is focusing not just on landmarks for content and learning outcomes, but on emotional ones. How should people feel at different stages? This helps us think through how we support cognitive resolutions, and when we should offer reassurance. It’s the difference between an agenda or script and an event or story. 

Find variety through scale, tools, and timbre

To continue—nay labour—the musical metaphor further, I’d like to suggest that while we may compose the narrative or arc of a day, it’s in its orchestration that we move the heart and soul.

Scale is an easy and powerful variable to play with. Individual, pairs, small groups, office teams, everyone globally. While technology makes the all-hands broadcast trivially tempting, we’ve found great success in moving interactions between the other scales. Skimming a pre-read individually, then sharing thoughts in teams. Watching an “all-hands” call while back-channel chatting with our desk buddy (it’s happening anyway - don’t fight it).

Moving people through different tools, environments, and focus-levels is similarly important. Turning off the cameras and using text-only chat for brainstorming or ideation is a refreshing change of pace, and lowers the bar for contribution.

Let it breathe

If there has been one big lesson of the last few weeks, it’s that our calendars have been seriously misrepresenting the length of days, weeks and months. What are we on, April the 342nd?

Humour me for a moment: stop reading and take a few breaths. Relax your shoulders. Maybe rattle a few of the words you’ve just read around in your head for a moment. Check the cat is where you left it. Smile at something that’s just come into your head.

Time feels good, doesn’t it?

Let’s apply that feeling in some obvious ways:

Firstly, every session, task or meeting you’ve had or will have would be better shorter, or with some more pauses. Don’t ask for questions immediately after finishing a presentation; give people a minute where they don’t feel pressured. Maybe suggest they chat with a colleague out of band for a moment, or get up and stretch.

Secondly, think about how you might gain flexibility for people by stretching an event over a longer period. Our experience of making online learning events for organisations like Daimler and Historic Royal Palaces has taught us that giving people the chance to discover, experiment, and reflect on material along with their lives and jobs over the span of days or weeks is hugely beneficial.

You don't need to prepare more for this to work. The amount of content you need to nudge the boulder on a large idea is actually relatively meagre. What matters instead is the opportunity we have to put things in practice, and even more importantly, to reflect.

Can you set people low-risk challenges or missions that let people apply new ideas in their work over time? Can you create forums for reflection, Q&A, or sharing as needs arise?

Emotion, interaction and breathing. These are all at their heart fundamentally human ideas that we think are all the more important to surface at times like this. They are also free and for everyone. They don’t require a “pro” tier account, or fancy technical skills.

We hope they might be useful.

We’re helping organisations bring their people together at this complex time: to energise and involve them in the future of their business.