An Anniversary: My last in-person engagement

by Jessica Delaney, Principal, Engagement + Strategic Communications

It was February 27, 2020…my last in-person engagement. It was a great session full of dialogue and sharing. We were together for a full day in a downtown Vancouver ballroom. We had a breakfast and lunch buffet, we shook hands, and many of us hugged. It now all feels somewhat foreign. COVID-19 was out there, but hadn’t yet come knocking on our front door. I remember wearing a mask on the plane and feeling like the weird one in row 8. When I boarded the plane, I was anxious to get home, but had no idea that it would be more than a year until I would get on a plane again. Recently, someone said: “Early 2020, when we were so young…”, meaning we had no concept of what lay ahead and were perhaps a bit naïve.

When I think back to my last in-person engagement, it was not socially distant in any way, shape, or form and I honestly don’t think I will do a session like it in the near future. While there is a magic that can happen when groups come together, there was also a trade-off. When I think about how much money that event cost (people travelled from across the province for a one-day event), when I think about the carbon emissions from the travel, the collective time away from family, and the collective energy to organize such an event, it gives me cause to reflect. Most of our engagements, pre-pandemic, included both in-person and online engagement, but I believe that for many clients there was primacy or priority given to the in-person engagement. I don’t think we invested as heavily in virtual engagement. I don’t think we always valued what learned virtually as much as what we learned in-person.

So, while I miss the hugs, the magic and the connection, I think as a practice, community and stakeholder engagement needs to do more to be creative, collaborative and take an equity approach to virtual engagement. Imagine if we invested all the resources that were spent on one in-person day, for a series of smaller virtual events? Here are a few things I have learned, and practices I am working on to make my virtual sessions truly engaging:

  • Send care packages ahead of time. If there are materials that would be helpful to have in-hard copy, send them. Think about including some tea or coffee, notebooks, pens or even stretch cards so that participants feel like thought and care was given to their wellness in a virtual session.
  • Don’t skimp on the time required to build rapport and connection. Create fun icebreakers, facilitate opportunities for lunch and learns or virtual coffee chats.
  • Don’t skip on breaks. Make sure you plan for a break and remind people what a break is…hint, it’s not doing more email!
  • Break up the sessions. Think about whole group, small group, reflective time. During an in-person session we wouldn’t all be together all the time (typically), so be sure to accommodate different formats to meet different needs.
  • Conduct pre-engagement surveys so that you can better understand participants’ needs and expectations for the session. Consider asking about fun or surprising facts and then integrate it into Kahoot or polling.

The pandemic is challenging all of us and it’s definitely been a challenge for engagement. I think it has also forced us to innovate and to be more reflective about how we bring people together and why we do it. It’s a constant learning and while I do miss hugs and connecting with people in person, I for one can say I will likely NEVER eat from a buffet or communal food again!

Stay well friends, Jessica