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The art of connecting online 2: DRIFT’s transition to online & blended meetings

Physical distancing does not (need to) mean social distancing – but how do you manage your online connections in an effective and meaningful way? At DRIFT, we have been experimenting with online meetings. Over the coming weeks we will share some insights on different topics in different ways. In this second blog Sarah RachGiorgia Silvestri and Vaishali Joshi dive into the change of structures and internal practices that accompanied the technological innovations at DRIFT.
 
The unremitting need of physical isolation in the times of COVID-19 pandemic has made us rethink the ways in which we organize and connect with each other. While the remote online participation enabled by emergent social technologies and digital networks is not new, it is becoming an operational necessity for several organizations and even personal social interaction. 
 
At DRIFT, long before the COVID-19 crisis came into picture, the international and collaborative character of our activities, projects as well as more people working from home required us to communicate, stay in touch and collaborate online. Next to online meetings, we have been experimenting with blended events for our activities for over two years now at DRIFT. The events which have a mix of both in-person and online participants whose interaction is enabled through technology are called blended events or hybrid events. Blended participation has been increasing at work both in international project work, events and education, as well as in internal DRIFT meetings to include participants who are unable to join in-person due to various reasons including environmental and health reasons. 
 
In the first blog in this series colleague Flor Avelino and others describe our ‘social innovation’ insights for facilitating online meetings. In this blog we discuss the technical structures that enabled us to go online and some new practices that emerged. We will also share how we at DRIFT organize ourselves remotely, why we chose Zoom software and invested in actual Zoom-rooms. 
 
Transitioning our practices online
Online and blended events have become an integral part of DRIFT’s daily functioning and some DRIFTers have even given keynote speeches for workshops and conferences online! Over the last two years, we have made efforts to transition from in-person working structures towards more blended working structures using several technologies such as Zoom, Skype, Slack, Google Drive, etc.  We have learned a lot about both the technical possibilities and social dimensions involved in this ‘transition’. We mainly organize formal meetings and events through Zoom but we also use other technologies such as Slack for sharing information and brainstorming on new ideas or Google drive to collaboratively work on the development of reports, articles or for the design and organisation of (online) workshops and events. 
 
Organizing internally
Many of our colleagues are living outside of Rotterdam, even in different countries and they are not always available at DRIFT’s office or may frequently work from home. It is imperative to provide them with an opportunity to connect remotely for organization’s activities and most importantly for participating in project meetings. By going online, DRIFT gives opportunity to its staff not only to attend the project (internal) meetings remotely but also for any other organizational activities, for example, the weekly organized acceleration and deceleration sessions. Every Monday of the week, we organize these two sessions to provide space for dialogues and knowledge exchange on activities of different projects and research topics  at DRIFT. These sessions are organized in our Zoom Rooms and the people who cannot join in-person have the option to attend these sessions online. Also, we are increasing our online connectivity approach in research and consultancy practices such as by conducting online interviews for data collection and conducting webinars for co-creating and disseminating research knowledge.
 
Online collaboration 
DRIFT has several international projects and initiatives that continuously require collaborative efforts with other partner organizations. The majority of these projects involve partners working in different geographical locations. This means that the collaboration and communication among partners need to happen using a diverse range of online technologies and structures (e.g. Zoom, Skype, Slack, Google Drive, GoToMeeting, etc.). This further challenges us to continuously strive for not only extending the spectrum of our activities online but the participatory and co-creative nature of these online and/or blended events. Most recently in the UrbanA project at DRIFT, we are experimenting with larger blended  meetings (50-100 people) and have also organized our first blended UrbanA Arena event in Rotterdam. DRIFT have become increasingly translocal in terms of local-global, cities-regions-countries, grassroot movements-formal organizations and urban-rural linkages to tackle societal challenges. Through our experiences, we found that when we approach ‘going online’ as a social innovation in our meetings to achieve better human connection, they strengthen our translocal collaborations and solidarity. Thus, we see going online in our several practices as a time-effective, cost-effective, environment-friendly and inclusive transition.
 
Zooming online & blended meetings at DRIFT
Zoom is a cloud-based online communication software that provides remote conferencing services such as audio and video conferencing, live chats and webinars. It is similar to Skype but provides some extra benefits and possibilities of setup making it more relevant for inclusive and collaborative organizational communication platform. It also has high device independence and can be accessed across several platforms such as desktops, mobile phones, telephones and room systems and can be used either through apps or web-interface. At DRIFT we use both free and paid Zoom software plans in our computers and we also have fixed dedicated Zoom rooms for individual use and larger meetings/events.
 
Zoom software plans
Zoom offers four different software plans for its users with distinct features and at DRIFT we use free and pro Zoom accounts. Every DRIFTer has a free Zoom account which is best for personal use. It allows unlimited number of one on one meetings but impose a 40 minutes time limit when in group meetings (2+) and does not allow recording of meetings. It is ideal for interviews or meetings with one other person. DRIFT also has a number of paid pro Zoom accounts accessible to all DRIFTers. It is ideal for large internal meetings, meetings with external participants and organization of webinars. It allows unlimited number of meetings, have 24 hours’ time limit on group meetings with 100 participants, allows audio-visual recordings (1GB cloud space) and allows custom personal meeting ID for recurring meetings. Though you need an account to host a meeting,  Zoom offers a Web Client option that allows joining Zoom meetings on a web interface without downloading any software and without an account. .
 
Zoom Rooms
Zoom can be used easily using the Zoom app (downloaded and installed) in desktops, laptops and mobile phones or simply through telephone or web interface. Though for the workplace, we believe that the Zoom Rooms offer a more professional setup for conference proceedings. Zoom rooms are conference rooms with an integrated video conferencing hardware and software system that allows users to schedule and run Zoom meetings with a click of a button. However, they require an additional Zoom Room subscription. At DRIFT we have two dedicated Zoom rooms with fixed technical equipment: a projector screen, controller tablet, several cameras, speakers and microphones.  The smaller room has the capacity ideal for 4-6 people and the larger room has capacity for 30 people.
 
Zoom Meetings
Through your Zoom account, you can participate and host meetings simply through an invitation or meeting code. We can directly schedule meetings using Zoom app or web and have sync Zoom with our calendars. Zoom provides an option of sending automatically generated  calendar invitations in Outlook. As a host, you can simply start the meeting using the “Meet Now” button and participants can join the meeting using meeting codes in the invitations. Zoom provides several practical options to provide smooth communication experience. In our meetings we most commonly make use of options such as sharing your screens and whiteboards, using live chat space for questions and discussion, local recording and cloud recording, and break-out sessions for online participants.
 
Changed practices: introducing new roles and rules
We now use Zoom regularly for organizing our internal team meetings, organizational activities (such as acceleration and deceleration sessions), research activities (online interviews and webinars) project meetings with our partner organizations, blended arena events (see our Rotterdam arena event for UrbanA project) and webinars to share and discuss our research work. However, we are still adjusting especially for our larger internal meetings like the Monday deceleration and acceleration. These blended meetings require good facilitation and mindful participation of both online- and in person participants. It is challenging to make sure that online participants see what is presented, know what’s going on in the room and can hear clearly. We share some of our insights so far (and which are still points for improvement for ourselves):

  • The presenter uses the screen sharing function of Zoom.
  • One person (who is not the presenter) is appointed the role of facilitator. The facilitator makes sure that online participants can fully participate. 
  • Online participants are the first to comment on a presentation or ask questions. It’s the facilitators role to involve the online participants.
  • Try not to speak at the same time. Also, the participants in the room need to wait until they can speak. For online participants it’s very annoying if multiple people speak at the same time. The facilitator makes sure that online participants speak first and that in-person participants speak one at a time. 
  • If possible and necessary (like for example in a Zoom room) one person is the ‘video host’. She makes sure that in-person participants are visible for online participants by controlling the camera views.

For several organizations, there is an indispensable need for increasing online connective action to be able to get their work done amid COVID-19 lockdown. For many of us, working from home can be a challenge to coordinate work with colleagues or missing our coffee break chats. But physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing as well. Our aim of writing this blog is to share our experiences with taking our work online,  enabling technical structures in our organizations and insights on how to effectively facilitate online and/or blended meetings. We hope that it can be of some help to other professional organizations, who plan to make their organization remote ready now or in future. In our next blog we will go into organizing large blended events, illustrated by the DRIFT-led UrbanA arena event #1 in Rotterdam in November 2019.
 
Over the coming weeks, DRIFT colleagues will be sharing some insights on a diversity of topics, via blogs and webinars, e.g. on how and why DRIFT has invested in the Zoom software as its main online platform, or practical skills & tricks how to facilitate and make online meetings more interactive and meaningful. Read blog #1, in which we share 7 social innovation insights on connecting online, and keep an eye on our news-section to stay tuned. 
 
About the authors

  • Sarah Rach works on transitions in the urban context and has a specific interest in aspects of (in)justice therein. In the UrbanA project she took online meetings to another level by co-organizing a blended event for 50+ participants. 
  • Giorgia Silvestri is engaged in action research and process facilitation of transition governance processes. She has been facilitating blended courses and online learning processes as part of different projects (e.g. TOMORROW, UrbanA and T-GroUP). 
  • Vaishali Joshi is a Master student in Development and Rural Innovation at Wageningen University & Research and currently doing an internship at DRIFT, with a partial focus on connective action through online communication. 

Date
March 30, 2020