When groups meet exclusively online, there are limits to what can be accomplished in terms of community building. To overcome these limits, try to gather your virtual community at an in-person event from time to time.
“In-person meetings are especially important in three scenarios: when conflict needs to be resolved, dialogue for deeper commitment is pending, or honest feedback to critical question is needed.”John Gieryn, Enspiral
Online communication and relationship building can impose limits on your community.
If all communication with your virtual community is done in writing, there are no physical, tone of voice, or other cues to help the reader understand the intentions behind the words. This can lead to misunderstandings and confusion.
Time delays or slow-flow communication
Not all online communication happens in real-time. The delay between posting information or content and receiving a reply or comment can be frustrating and take away from the experience of free-flowing, real-time communication.
Sometimes people are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of online messages they must respond to. They may choose to zone-out of conversations because they are stressed out or unable to find the time to focus on responding.
Meeting face-to-face and talking is ultimately the easiest and fastest way to connect with others. It’s also an important part of our human nature. An in-person event that gets your community members face-to-face helps to:
- Provide people with experiences (especially important to the millennial generation) rather than other kinds of rewards or benefits.
- Build trust faster than online experiences.
- Connect individuals still deciding whether to invest their time and effort into an online community with the people and organisation in real life.
How do communities manage the mixed meeting method (online/offline combination)?
OuiShare has created an acronym for in-person meetings MPRL (Meeting People in Real Life) and says it is one of their values. “Real connections happen in person, online is not enough. We do (at least) one yearly meeting for the international community called the OuiShare summit. The local communities meet at least monthly through Appero, OuiLoveEat (lunch together), OuiShare Drinks and other formats. They believe in the value of in-person meetings.
“It’s important to create space for informality, that’s were good connections happen, friendships, ideas, new projects.”OuiShare Wisdom
GIG (Global Innovation Gathering) is a global community that mostly connects online and does not host their own in-person gatherings. They use calls, e-mail and WhatsApp and Signal for most of the internal communications and share files on G-Drive and Trello to collaborate. Regular online meetings help to constantly share information about grants and events and give members a chance to ask for advice, make contacts, and collaborate on projects. And even though their digital communication works well, trust is central to their identity. This is why the core team tries to gather in person with as many members as possible at least once a year. Members also convene at different events or conferences throughout the year.
If you do organise an offline, in-person event or activity for your community, it is important to plan and facilitate the event with intention. Think beyond the basic elements like renting a venue and sending invitations to your meeting.
Select a clear goal
Articulate an overarching question for your in-person event and create sub-goals that support it.
Be critical and thoughtful about every item on the agenda and ensure each one links strongly the main goals. If an item does not serve your purpose, drop it. During the in-person event, you are not required to accommodate everyone who wants to speak–focus the discussion on your purpose and on what you want to achieve.
Put yourself in participant’s shoes
Consider your proposed agenda from a diversity and inclusion point of view. The meeting may be attended by recent new members, long-term members, introverts and extroverts, and people with various levels of knowledge all in the same room. Ensure that your discussions and methods accommodate the diversity of those in your community.
Strategic preparation and follow-up work
Hosting a few online calls before the in-person meeting gives people a chance to begin to connect, learn about the agenda, provide their input on presentations, and share their expectations.
To ensure action is taken after the in-person meeting ends, establish how people will continue to work together after the meeting. Create an action plan that includes scheduled check-ins.
When geography matters
Where a meeting takes place can impact the conversations people will have. For example, hosting a conversation in nature while talking about the impacts of humans on the planet can accelerate personal reflection. If people must travel to a unique location to attend your meeting, build time into the agenda so they can connect to and experience the place.
Shaping an experience
Most of the interpersonal bonding actually happens outside of the agenda. Think about how you can create or engineer moments for participants to show more than their professional side by planning activities like canoeing before breakfast, games after dinner, a boat cruise, storytelling around the fire, or dancing to your community playlist. Remember, moments become memories.
These are unique in that they are both physical and virtual communities. People who are co-working regularly from Impact Hub spaces are able to connect face-to-face, attend events, and talk to Impact Hub staff on a regular basis. The virtual community has a much wider net and allows people to connect globally with members from other Impact Hubs. Many Impact Hubs use offline tools (such as posters) to promote their online community and a wider online community can be used to promote in-person events. There is a daily play between online and offline.
“There are limitations to what can be done online. You cannot physically create something together, you are missing the spaces in between session in which we get to know who those people actually are, it’s harder to be vulnerable. A shared in-person experience is magic and builds trust incredibly fast.”
Maggie De Pree, League of Intrapreneurs
There are many situations when meetings and conferences take place both in-person virtually. This hybrid or mixed-method meeting style requires extra planning to ensure those attending in-person do not become frustrated with the technology, and that those attending online are able to interact meaningfully with the rest of the group. Be a positive champion for mixed-methods and set up the conditions for success!
“Think about your best (and worst) online experiences. Learn from what draws you in or puts you off.”Adam – U.lab
Before you begin planning a mixed-method, hybrid meeting that combines in-person and virtual attendance, take some time to consider how you will prepare.
- Find a technology solution that accommodates a range of ways of connecting and ensure that audio and visual works smoothly on both sides.
When designing your face-to-face agenda and facilitation methods, remember, people will be joining remotely.
- Think carefully about the goals of each session and identify how people attending remotely can actively contribute i.e:
- Use the chat box in big plenary work and invite virtual attendees to submit their ideas in the chatbox. *Ask someone in the room to capture them and share them in plenary discussions.
- As a facilitator, schedule frequent reminders for yourself to check-in with online attendees during discussions.
- For smaller work sessions, pair a virtual participant with someone physically present. *Use a call or Zoom to allow them to discuss questions and invite the person in the room to take notes.
- In countries where organisations may lack access to technology, rely on a network of partners who can offer rooms, video-conferencing, and access to support.
- Select a person attending the meeting in-person to be a buddy for a person virtually attending the meeting. They can help them be more present in the room by moving the laptop or iPad around.
- Create a WhatsApp group to include virtual attendees and send photographs of outputs, flipcharts, notes, general interactions to the group.
- Be sure to include an image of the screen where the virtual participants’ faces appear on camera–when participants know they are on a big screen in the room it can limit their level of distraction.
Set up a Google Doc to capture content so people participating virtually to see notes and comments as they are being typed and captured. If people attend only a few sessions, they can quickly scan the Google Doc notes and get up to speed on conversations.
Make sure that all participants are sharing responsibility for making a mixed-method meeting useful and valuable for everyone. It is important to remember that there will always be limitations to consider when hosting mixed-method meetings.
Think carefully about who needs to be in the meeting to do the heavy lifting during tough conversations. People getting up at 3 am to attend virtually may be too tired and groggy or emotionally stressed from lack of sleep.
Developing interpersonal rapport
Trust is vital for communities. During difficult conversations that challenge personal values and worldviews, it might be best to lead with a face-to-face session to build rapport and encourage people to approach conversations from a place of empathy. Once trust and rapport are strong you can begin using mixed or virtual meeting methods.
Set the rules
It can be challenging to balance your community’s interpersonal dynamics. Build trust first and ensure that participants have appropriate cross-cultural awareness.
As meeting dates approach, do not make last-minute changes to timelines and the agenda unless absolutely necessary. If people wake up at odd hours to attend a meeting virtually only to find that the meeting has been pushed back by two hours, you are not providing attendees with a positive experience.
In-person meetings are unique opportunities to truly connect members of your community, create a sense of shared ownership, and move towards collaborative action. In community gatherings, every minute is precious. Sometimes, there is a tendency to fill the agenda with items that require attendees to listen only. When people are listening only, they are flooded with information from speakers or presenters. Listening can be done online but activities like debating strategy, solving tensions, deciding on key questions, creating new projects, and taking the time to simply be together as a community are much harder to do productively within a digital space.
Shift your thinking about the in-person away from the meeting being an event. Instead, think of the meeting as one
basecamp along your community’s journey upward
. The climb to the basecamp is actually completed by the organisers prior to the meeting and the community’s climb will follow after the meeting. The basecamp is a “place” or moment for the group to connect, recharge, and strategise.
What does it mean to approach your in-person meeting as a journey?
Begin preparing your community members months in advance, before they actually meet as a group. Plan what your post, in-person meeting follow-up will look like (not the content but possible structures). Let’s take a closer look.
Preparing for your meeting
Identify sessions that must happen in-person
When you start planning, setting meeting goals, and collecting agenda items, think about which of the goals you can already start to work on virtually and identify sessions that can be hosted online before or after your meeting.
Knowledge exchange sessions, easier discussions, or small skill trainings can be partially or completely done virtually and do not need to use up valuable face-to-face meeting time.
Establish and communicate expectations before the meeting, not on the spot or when the meeting kicks-off after the agenda has been prepared. Schedule a call or survey to learn more about why people are joining the meeting. Your role is to serve the members and guide them along the journey while ensuring individual expectations for the meeting align with the overall purpose of the community.
Create a prep package
Packages should include things like a brief agenda, logistics, and summaries about key content points as well as pre-reads, Powerpoint presentations, important links. People who are new to your community will appreciate the chance to prepare for the conversations ahead of the meeting.
Host input sessions
These are especially important for individuals who will not be able to join the meeting but are an important element of the journey. Organise calls to provide these members with context about the discussions that will take place and solicit their opinions.
These sessions can also be a great way to get people who will actually meet in person to begin thinking about key questions and hear the opinions of those who will not attend the meeting. Google Docs are a great way to collect inputs during the calls.
Organise logistics sessions
Provide all of the basic information attendees will need to feel comfortable travelling to the meeting. This includes a run-through of the agenda with all the logistical details unpacked and questions answered. Ideally, this session is hosted far in advance of the meeting so people can still give input, express worries, or point out gaps. Allow enough time for questions.
A practical tip: You do not need to create specific calls for each of these tasks. They can be folded into existing calls with your community. If different sub-communities have different hosts, you can ask them to gather input, collect expectations, and spread information about an in-person meeting.
OuiShare, for example, makes sure people get the most out of their in-person meetings by starting conversations about the most important items using the decision-making tool, Loomio, using one thread for each topic so that each topic can be thoroughly discussed. Their method has two key two benefits:
- Those who cannot join the meeting can easily give input on topics of interest and;
- When members gather in-person, they use their time much more efficiently and for things that are harder to do online such as building more authentic connections.
How to follow-up after the meeting
As the community builder, you must think strategically about post-meeting follow-up activities before your meeting takes place. Even though you do not know what decisions will be made or what new topics or ideas will emerge, you do know that the meeting will produce concrete tasks and activities. Prepare suggestions and follow-up format ideas that will support the follow-up process ahead of time and adapt them based on the actual outcomes of your meeting.
Examples of follow-up formats:
- Virtual Workgroups (3-10 members) tasked with a concrete goal(s) and responsible for a clearly articulated work package that includes specific roles and a timeframe.
- Peer Groups (3-5 members) allow for community advice and support of members who are each facing a similar challenge and include an end-date when the group will make a decision about how to continue.
- Take concrete ideas, decisions, or work packages to existing sub-communities who will move this forward without needing to create a new structure.
- Larger calls for the whole community to come together and continue conversations and discuss action items in breakout rooms.
No matter what follow-up activities you plan, the community will decide what the post-meeting follow-up will look like.
You are responsible for supporting members to follow through with their commitments. Equally important is to ensure that individuals who did not attend the in-person meeting can get all the information they need to feel included and join in.
The meeting is one step along a larger journey, but what will happen after should be part of the agenda in subtle ways that do not distract the group from being in the present moment.
- Mention the topic of joint commitment and turning decisions and ideas into reality after the meeting in your opening statement to provide guidance and clarity about the common goal.
- At the end of each session, collect decisions and results and have clear next-steps and commitments.
- Encourage members to challenge each other to make commitments i.e., if this is important to us, who will lead the workgroup?
- If new peer or workgroups emerge, ensure there is a person to host the first few meetings and a first call is scheduled right away.
- Those leading sessions should co-create the harvest to be shared with the wider community.
A few final points on actionable follow-up activities after in-person meetings:
- Administer a survey that invites feedback and improvement and also invites participants to share their experiences and learnings.
- Share-back calls with those who did not attend to help them learn about the conversations and results (integrated into existing community calls).
- Make a list of the working groups, peer groups, and other groups that emerge so that those who did not attend present can join in easily.
- Set up new channels within your platform if needed.
In-person meetings are foundational to communities.
If you can not organise your own gatherings find out what conferences or events members might attend and simply convene them in a side meeting. This saves CO2 and budget.
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.
U.Lab is a truly experiential program based on the Theory U. This course translates the awareness and consciousness about ourselves onto a systemic level. It brings much needed attention into business, government, and civil society. This will be achieved by truly understanding every aspect of ourselves and how to bring those into every aspect of life.
U.Lab attracts thousands of learners every year with a multi-month journey that uses virtual calls with up to 450 participants, live-streams, and intimate in-person groups. A unique combination of a subject that matters, global connection that overcomes isolation, local hosts, and self-lead learning have helped U.lab create a global community without a strong central structure.