The art of connecting online: 7 social innovation insights

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 first blog Flor Avelino, Sarah Rach, Giorgia Silvestri and Vaishali Joshi elaborate on connecting online as a social innovation, as learned from grassroots translocal networks.
As the Coronavirus has gripped the world, we are asked to “cancel everything” and engage in “social distancing”. Fortunately, physical distancing does not (need to) mean social distancing, as we can use the online universe to sustain and nurture our social connections. Doing so in a meaningful way, however, requires social innovation and a particular caution and awareness. At DRIFT, we have been experimenting with online meetings, together with many partner organisations. In this blog, we share some of our basic convictions and insights about online meetings.
Translocal solidarity: a need well before and beyond Corona
We have been committed to online meetings well before we had ever heard of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Online meetings can save a lot of time and costs, both in terms of travelling and hosting, and avoid considerable amounts of CO2 emissions and other unintended hazardous impacts. Furthermore, online connections have the potential to unite humanity at an unprecedented scale across the world.
The societal challenges that we are facing today, be it climate change, inequality,  or health crises, require translocal collaboration and solidarity between different regions, cities, villages, cultures and generations. Not only can online gatherings overcome physical distances, there is also a potential to break through cultural, socio-economic, generational or other intersectional barriers, possibly including and connecting more diverse groups of people. Be it youngsters in the Global South connecting via social media to organise a Climate Strike, parents listening in on a webinar while their kids are running around, or bedridden elderly video-chatting with their grandkids. The online world enables people to connect that might otherwise not have been able to.

‘Unlocking the potential benefits of online meetings is currently more a matter of social innovation than technological innovation.’

While celebrating online benefits, we need to acknowledge that there are also many downsides. There are various unintended consequences of the ICT-revolution of the past decades, such as the worrisome digital divide between those who have access to internet and those who do not. Another main disadvantage of meeting online, compared to face to face, is the lacking sense of real human connection. This is why we argue that unlocking the potential benefits of online meetings is currently more a matter of social innovation than technological innovation.
While high-tech solutions and expensive systems may greatly improve the audio-visual quality of the experience, they are not a necessary condition for online meetings. Anyone with a smart-phone and an internet connection can engage in meaningful online gatherings. Most of the technology that we need, both hardware and software, already exists and is available to large amounts of people, even if accessibility still needs to be improved. The social innovation that is needed for meaningful online connections, on the other hand, is much less widespread.
Going online as a social Innovation: learning from grassroots translocal networks
Online gatherings are at least as diverse as offline gatherings. Think of the difference between visiting a theatre show or having an intimate conversation with three friends. Both are ‘gatherings’ of some sort, but entirely different in scale and required social rules. Also if we focus on small and medium-sized meetings with 5-30 people, there is a lot of diversity, ranging from webinars and classrooms to formal assemblies or team meetings. Despite this diversity, it is true for all of them that attaining a human connection during an online meeting does not happen automatically, no matter how fancy our ICT-facilities are. To gain a human connection online, we need social innovation: changing the way we relate to each other, involving new ways of doing, organising and thinking.

‘To gain a human connection online, we need  to change the way we relate to each other, involving new ways of doing, organising and thinking.’

As such it is not surprising that our own most pleasant and informative insights about online meetings were facilitated and informed by networks and initiatives that have invested a lot of time and effort in social innovation (see a list of examples of such networks, many of which are translocal and working with online meetings and platforms). One specific example is ECOLISE, the European Network for Community-led Initiatives on Climate Change and Sustainability, which represents a diversity of organisations, including ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, the Global Ecovillage Network, the Transition Towns Network, and many others. Since DRIFT is a member of ECOLISE, we have witnessed how this meta-network, as well as many of its member organisations, facilitate offline, online, and blended gatherings amongst grassroots initiatives across the world. The Global Ecovillage Network, for instance, recently organised the international Communities for Future Summit as an entirely free, online experience.
Within the UrbanA project on Sustainable and Just Cities, we collaborate with ECOLISE, ICLEI and several other organisations in experimenting with online platforms (e.g. a Wiki on Sustainable and Just Cities) and different kinds of blended arena meetings to connect city-makers and thinkers across the world. A blended meeting, as a hybrid event combining both face-to-face and online participants, comes with a specific set of methods and social rules (see e.g. this blog). For this, we were  inspired by the ‘remote-ready expertise’ of Nenad Maljković on Virtual Teams for Systemic Change (see Nenad’s recent sharing of remote resources). After organizing UrbanA’s first blended arena meeting in Rotterdam, we will continue to experiment and further develop blended and online meetings over the coming years with the intention of sharing the learnings in an open-source knowledge commons. While we do not consider ourselves experts in online organizing, we have been and are learning how to facilitate connective action through online communication, and would like to share some of our learnings along the way.
Our top 7 insights for online team meetings (so far)
In this blog, we focus our insights on fully online meetings with small and medium-sized teams (5-30 people). Rather than practical tips & tricks (which we share in other blogs and webinars ), here we formulate more fundamental underlying insights on cultivating a necessary attitude and mindset. Those familiar with the art of hosting and other facilitation techniques, might recognise the insights below, many of which can also be applied to face to face meetings.
None of these insights are entirely novel, yet they can be considered socially innovative as they are being reinvented in the relatively new context of online team meetings. Even for people and organisations who would normally not apply these insights in their face to face meetings (as we often don’t at DRIFT), we argue that for online team meetings, these insights are necessary to compensate for the lacking informal encounters that surround face to face meetings. The fact that we call these insights ‘necessary’ does not change the fact that they are also very difficult to achieve and implement. Although the insights are formulated in the imperative form, they are not meant as advice for others to follow but rather as guidelines that we can all strive for. 
Top 7 insights for online team meetings (5-30 people):

  • Be fully present. It might be tempting to keep your pajamas on, turn off your video, pick your nose and check emails while attending an online team meeting. Don’t. This is one of the things that makes online meetings exhausting and cumbersome for everyone involved. If the internet connection allows it, turn on your video. Never underestimate the power of non-verbal communication.
  • Treat it like a face to face meeting. If you are organising and hosting an online meeting, make sure there is an agenda, a clear purpose, clarity on roles and facilitation style, and – if longer than 1/ 1,5 hours – a short break. If you are participating, arrive a few minutes before the meeting starts and take responsibility for your own physical and mental needs. If you need something to drink or a short break for whatever other reason, just communicate it. 
  • Check-in & check-out. Reserve a moment at the start for people to ‘check-in’, i.e. arrive and connect. While many people fear that this takes too much time, our experience is that it can be very quick (e.g. everybody just says where they are located and how the weather is) and it makes a huge difference in terms of the quality and atmosphere of the meeting. It may even save time: when people feel connected and heard from the start, they  feel more at ease and less of a need to over-explain themselves.  If there is time, and especially if the meeting has been long and intense, have a check-out round as well. Again, this can be extremely quick, possibly even just everybody saying 1 word.
  • Share responsibilities. If you are organising an online team meeting, try to share roles and responsibilities with others for chairing, presenting, facilitating, note-taking and time-keeping. If one single person is doing all that at the same time, it is likely to not only be stressful for that particular person, but it can also get confusing and unnerving for other participants.
  • Share your screen/ slides/ notes. If you are referring to slides, tables, or other visuals or schematics, make sure all other participants can see it, by sharing your screen or an online file. If someone is taking notes, ideally make use of a live document where others can see what kind of notes are being taken, possibly enabling people to add to the notes themselves.
  • Be flexible and trust human creativity. This one might be the most difficult to master. Online meetings will more often than not involve unexpected glitches, ICT-related or otherwise. If any of the above ‘ideals’ of online meetings are impeded for whatever reason, go with the flow and make do with what you have. If you or somebody else gets cut off, trust that you/he/she will be reconnected later one, if not during the meeting, then afterwards via the notes/ email/ a next meeting.
  • Go offline. Paradoxically, to meaningfully connect online, we also need to be offline. Choose your online moments carefully, for being in too many online meetings is an exhaustive joykill for anyone. Not all potential meetings that cannot happen physically (due to Corona or otherwise) need to become online meetings. Some of them may be emails or documents or be postponed until the next meeting. 

When writing this blog we primarily had professional online team meetings in mind. However, in uncertain times like these, online connection is not only useful for work but also to connect to our beloved family and friends, to feel united even if physically distant. Maybe instead of having yet another professional team meeting, let’s have a video coffee or lunch break with a friend or family member that we can’t visit. Especially our quarantined elderly fellow citizens might be craving company. Although online meetings do get exhausting at some point, with some good practice they can be joyful. Let’s make the best out of them.
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. Keep an eye on this webpage to stay tuned.  
About the authors:

  • Flor Avelino specialises in the role of power in social innovation and sustainability transitions, and has a particular interest in the translocal empowerment of people and social movements to transform their environments in more just and sustainable places.
  • 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-organzing 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.


March 20, 2020