John Gieryn
Enspiral Catalyst
In-person meetings are foundational to communities - Enspiral
Global (NZ, Brazil, Australia, EU, US)
Meaningful livelihood, Future of work, Culture first technology, Biggest challenges of our time, Participatory democracy, Economic democracy

Enspiral has more than 10-years experience combining online and offline meetings. They understand the value of creating a space for shared human experience by carving out moments for stories, true presence, and vulnerability. In-person meetings offer the unique opportunity to solidify commitment, resolve tensions, receive honest feedback, and strengthen the relationships within the community. In turn, this will benefit the community in virtual meetings to come.

Why are in-person meetings still needed? Or asked differently, which elements of community building cannot be done online?

In person meetings are the heartbeat of our community. The main impact is achieved through the relationships. It is the best way to start and strengthen connections which the community feeds on for months to come when working together virtually.  

At Enspiral, we try to host multiple in-person events a year to give members the chance to connect. One annual member retreat with about 200 people, a summer fest with 70 people including friends of members, and smaller winter retreats with about 20 people each.

Depending on which channels we use, the bandwidth is different: chatting by text the bandwidth is quite low, then a phone call, after the video call, and lastly the highest bandwidth being the in-person meetings. People in one room allows for more communication and signals such as visually, touch and smell. Being in the same room allows for serendipity, small talk, and real-life interactions.

Those moments face-to-face allow for true communication and connection that goes outside this box of visual communication we regularly use on our computer screens.

The quality of aliveness that comes from being together, this energetic presence can not be recreated in a virtual setting. Sometimes we just need to connect as humans with all senses.

How would you compare the up and downsides of online versus offline meetings?

There are a lot of disadvantages in virtual calls. It takes a lot more facilitator energy to have a good call. In person, people bounce ideas off of each other, share stories, and feed off of each others’ energy.  Virtually, hand gestures are different, language differences are more difficult to overcome, the barriers for everyone to engage are higher.  Visual and kinesthetic learners can be at a disadvantage in a virtual meeting.  

Screens simply have too much noise and distractions that lead to a temptation to disconnect. If you are all in the same room looking at the same thing there is more focus. 

Finally, you can play with the senses very differently when you meet in person. You can use the room to support the joint thinking with set-ups, interaction, capturing, eating together, celebrating and being vulnerable. 

In smaller groups, the magic of serendipity in connection is quite unique.

What are some of the key elements for your in-person meeting in terms of preparation, time together, and follow-up?

For the preparation we do a few things. We try to co-create the agenda by sharing a clear intention or purpose with everyone coming by asking leading questions. People can then put forward ideas. We want people to get concrete and come prepared. 

We try to have a single, predominant channel related to any given meeting that will always be updated with the focus on giving everyone the info they need to be fully present when we meet in person.  We try to support them to start thinking about the meeting a week before through regular exchange, teasers, etc.

When we are together the key is to hold the space. We want to create a container that allows for psychological safety and vulnerability. There are many ways to create that kind of space.

Spacious check-in 

Without time pressure that allows for conversations to emerge and invite people to bring their whole self, personal and professional.

Story circle (by Billy Matheson)

Share stories that will deepen our relationships, improve capacity to work together, better understand each other and help us grow as individuals.

Listening party 

Inspired by Psychedelic Society we host an open-mic with intentionality.

Also important is keeping those that were not present at the meeting informed using documentation and small video bites captured at the event.

For the follow-up, here three concrete tips:

  1. Start the evaluation right away. Capture what everyone committed to during this meeting through action steps with names to increase accountability. We record actions on a organisation-wide kanban, the “improvement board” (using open source Trello replica,
  2. We document gratitude to one another in a Slack channel called #thanks which is an important way that we institutionalised gratitude and empathy.
  3. If conversations lead to a point where a decision is needed, we take them to Loomio for discussion. This way those that weren’t present can contribute before decisions are made or at least they will be informed of the decisions and reasoning behind them.
What advice would you give other community builders when it comes to the mixed-method of online and offline events?

Online meetings require more intention to hold the space and make the experience a living human encounter. Practicing mindfulness, compassion, playfulness, and gratitude can be very helpful. Solid rhythms, a good facilitator, a clear reason why you meet, and check-ins will improve your online meetings.

In-person meetings are a starting point for conversations and decision making. Those moments when we come together are one element, one step in the member experience and should not be treated as a standalone. It needs to be thought through as a whole and be placed into the member’s journey intentional.