Oh no, our event was cancelled! What now?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

After having to postpone an in-person learning event that was meant to bring members from across the whole Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance together we brought our knowledge sharing online. This blog summarises our key learning and recommendations if you’re forced to do the same.

Last week the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance was meant to have a face to face learning event. More than 50 members of the Alliance had planned to travel to Geneva, Switzerland to spend a week at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) headquarters to share our knowledge, experience, and learn about a number of topics we’d identified as having cross-alliance interest and value. We were all looking forward to this opportunity, not only to increase our knowledge on the topics of using climate science in community programming, nature-based solutions, and how to use our community work to influence advocacy efforts, but also to meeting people who we work with on an almost daily basis but have never seen in the flesh.  

For obvious reasons this large, international gathering did not take place. Rather than being together in Geneva most of us are confined to our homes, many juggling work with caring responsibilities, among growing uncertainty and restrictions on normal life. We haven’t necessarily cancelled the event but are rather holding out hope that it can be rescheduled to later in the year when we are again safe to travel and congregate. In the meantime we decided to bring the learning and knowledge sharing to a virtual space. 

As our learning event isn’t by far the only in-person meeting derailed by the spread of COVID-19 and the global response to curbing its impact, we want to share some of what we learned turning parts of the physical event (three full days, one per topic) into three webinars. These are the Alliance’s top tips for running a successful virtual event in this time of unprecedented measures.  

Stop thinking you can multitask  

The truth is none of us can perform multiple tasks to the same high standard as if we focused on only one. Don’t try to facilitate the session while also managing the technical hosting of the webinar. Recruit help from a capable colleague. Have a planning meeting before and establish who does what. Whose job is it to keep track of whose turn it is to speak next, who changes the slides etc.  

How, when, and why are you running the webinar? 

Are you planning a lecture or an opportunity for discussion and knowledge sharing? Either has value but require very different approaches. Why have you picked the format in question? “That’s how we always do it” is not a very good answer to that question.  

Share the objective of, and plan for, the session with participants at the start, along with some housekeeping rules and instructions for how to use different functions: everyone to stay muted until they speak, how are we using the chat function, how do you signal that you want to speak etc.  

As we’re a global Alliance with members as far east as the Philippines and New Zealand, and as far west as Mexico and Colorado, two of our webinars were run twice, once at office hours(ish) for the eastern hemisphere, one for the western. This worked as members made a huge effort, staying up late or getting up early. This can work for a once off session but you cannot assume that colleagues will always be so flexible.  

How do you make discussions work virtually? 

How do you prioritise discussions over presentation? For one of our webinars we tried sharing presentations beforehand so everyone participating would come to the session with the required background knowledge to jump straight into discussion. You can be creative with this, film yourself presenting, share an interesting video, or simply a slideshow. Make sure participants are given enough time to review the material (and any additional research they may want to do) before the session.  

Many webinar platforms (for example Zoom which we used for one of our sessions) provide the option of break-out groups. The way we used these was to let people select a topic they were most interested to learn more about, for example climate scenarios and decision making. A team with experience in this area provided a brief presentation, followed by a Q&A and discussion before all returned to the main “room” again where highlights from presentations and discussions were shared with all participants. If topics are shared and materials provided beforehand you can ask participants to pick what discussion group they want to be in in advance, making the session run even tighter.  

When trying to conduct discussions in a larger group it helps if the facilitator has an understanding of participants work, knowledge, and areas of expertise. Our facilitators have such insight into most of the teams’ work and were able to call upon individuals to contribute where their knowledge was useful. Turns out there are many more people with valuable things to say than people who are keen to volunteer to speak up in front of a group of 40 virtual colleagues. Obviously be careful with this approach, don’t put junior colleagues, or colleagues who are less confident in the language used on the spot in a way that undermines them.  

Chat away 

The chat box is a great place to post questions that arise during a presentation, but you’re not willing or able to interrupt to ask. Maybe another participant can answer the question, share a related resource, or you can circle back to these questions after the presentation. Make sure you schedule enough time for Q&A, you often need more than you think.  

I would also advice that you hold on to these chats. In the Alliance we’ve shared any questions posed or discussions started on Yammer. This way the sharing and learning can continue long after the webinar finishes, and colleagues who are unable to attend can still benefit and engage.  

It can also be a good idea to have a separate chat going with close colleagues. Did you miss something or didn’t quite understand but feel insecure saying so in front of a large group? Message someone you’re less reserved around asking for their view or understanding.  

There are other great functions that you can use to make your webinar more interactive. You can do a quiz or poll to check the uptake of knowledge or facilitate a discussion. Some platforms (Blackboard Collaborate for example) allows you to use icons to display your mood (confused, in disagreement, happy etc.) and show that you want the presenter to slow down or speed up. 

How do you ensure space and time for reflection?  

Some of us think while we talk, others prefer to finish their thoughts before sharing with others. There is a risk in webinars (as in physical meetings) that the space or audio is hogged by the former group. Many of the tips above help with providing time and space for reflection. Sharing resources well ahead of the session allows people to read/watch/listen and reflect in their own time and on their own terms. Continuing conversations after the session on Yammer or other forums allow people to reflect, learn more, and come back to the discussion. By posting questions that come up in the chatbox rather than interrupting a presenter participants get a heads up and can prepare for discussions to come, or respond directly in the chat without interrupting the presentation.  

How did that go? 

Ask your participants for feedback at the end. What was good and what could have been better? Consider the platform, the structure of the session, as well as the content. Debrief with those involved in putting the session together and reflect on the feedback received. A really strong debrief session might give you a blog that basically writes itself…  

Maintain your sense of humanity and humour 

Last, but definitely not least in these challenging times. Stay positive. Be flexible. Cut each other some slack, and settle for good enough where perfect is out of reach. Appreciate the opportunity to see another side of your colleagues, whether this is a more relaxed dress code (even with video on no-one can see that you’re in pyjama bottoms), an interesting piece of art (who knew my 27 year old colleague was such a big fan of Frozen), or children and pets requiring urgent attention (let’s all agree that helping your toddler find that blue crayon trumps whatever your meeting is about). We’re all in this weird situation together. Let’s be patient and kind to each other, and laugh together about what is still funny.  

Throughout this difficult time the Alliance continues to promote and facilitate knowledge sharing that strengthen flood resilience in communities across the globe. The Flood Resilience Portal, particularly the Resource Library, is at the heart of this effort.  

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