One thing that COVID-19 has not changed for me is the hours I log on phone calls and video chats. As my clients and colleagues are located across the globe, I am well-versed in online collaboration and technology.
While a good deal of Kati Collective’s consulting work is with governments and funders, and often in-country, one of the other services we provide is stakeholder engagement and facilitation. I am often asked to plan and facilitate meetings with leaders representing global health organizations and foundations who need to discuss and work overtime together on an issue for which they want to take collective action.
This week, I was supposed to be in Washington DC to facilitate a two-day meeting with participants from WHO, UNICEF, the CDC, PATH, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, JSI, CHAI, and Village Reach to discuss immunization data and prepare a framework for future action. To no one’s surprise, we are not in DC.
As things evolved, we quickly adjusted to transform the in-person meeting to a “virtual hub” meeting with hubs in Seattle, DC, and Geneva dialing in over the two days. Very quickly, in response to tighter travel restrictions and social distancing, it became 20 people calling in from their homes in Geneva, Zurich, Abuja, Washington DC, New York City, and Seattle.
The point of this meeting was to really dig in and do some iterative work together. As many of you may now be experiencing as you attempt big group meetings from your sofa, an in-person meeting has a different flow and format from an online meeting. Part of the pivot was realizing that we needed to create guidelines and expectations for participation that is circulated before the meeting starts so that everyone understands the process and how to show up differently than if we were in person.
One expectation that may sound obvious, but often isn’t, is that participants need to say what needs to be said. There’s not the same opportunity to clarify something in the hallway or have a side conversation as there is in an in-person meeting. But in a virtual meeting, participants must discuss and ask questions in the moment so the working group can align and collaborate as effectively as possible. It’s important to set this tone early and for the facilitator to give space for this to happen – even if it means encouraging people to connect with you via text or email if there’s something they aren’t comfortable with sharing in the full group.
As we prepped for this intensive two-day meeting, we started to realize that our usually diligent group of attendees wasn’t responding as we’d hoped to our pre-meeting surveys and outreach. As we received messages from them with concerns about caring for kids and partners and recent office closures, we realized we not have enough time to adjust the content to ensure it was ready for online use nor were we as up to speed on all the tools necessary for a multiple time zone/multiple tech tool meeting to go smoothly.
Most importantly, our read was that people were still trying to figure out how to juggle their newly disrupted lives and felt daunted by 12 hours of meetings over two days. How were they supposed to digest and synthesize all this important information in a short time with no chance for side talk with colleagues? How were they going to juggle six hours a day online (plus other meetings they likely had) with kid schedules and/or their partner also working from home in, what for many, is a cramped space? We recognized that postponing the meeting would give people a little more time to settle into this new “not so normal” and be able to come to the work with more focus.
So, we adjusted. We broke up our two-day agenda into more manageable chunks so the meetings will now take place in five three-hour sessions over two weeks. This allows time for participants to absorb the ideas and data presented between sessions and refuel before we come together again. As we learn, we’ll tweak the process from session to session as necessary. We’ve asked everyone to keep coming to this work with a sense of flexibility and maintaining communication with us so we can do what it takes to move this important work forward in the most extraordinary of times!