This global pandemic has knocked everyone sideways, and the way we work and live may never be the same. For those of us who travel regularly for work, being “grounded” has been unnerving—but also made us see what we’ve taken for granted, or even misused. 

When COVID hit, we had to figure out how to have effective meetings without face to face interaction. How would we build trust, spark creativity and foster community, let alone work with tension and conflict, if we could no longer meet face to face? As a facilitator of in-person convenings, how was I going to create meaningful and high impact meetings online? But simultaneously, how many times did I fly across the world spending all that CO2 to meet with people who were struggling to engage, felt compelled to be on their phones, or who were too exhausted because of jetlag and travel hassles?  

When March came along, our team at Spring and justice advocates globally had no choice but to work online. The shift was abrupt and disorienting, but soon we realized that being grounded opened up new opportunities. For one, we all realized how much we needed to connect and to feel a sense of purpose and community, beyond our immediate family and “bubble”. And there was a tremendous sense of urgency. At a time of so much change, how could we capture its transformative potential? And there was only one way to create such a space within the confines of physical distancing: through our computers and phones.  

Our team at Spring saw all our forthcoming global meetings and trainings cancelled, so we did a fast pivot. By April, we were ready to launch something that everyone was asking for: how to facilitate large groups online. We created a state-of-the-art program aimed at training experienced facilitators in High Impact Virtual Facilitation. And here we are, five months later, with a total of 150 social and environmental justice changemakers from over 20 different countries trained through the program, with an additional 375 changemakers supported through our other virtual programs. 

We can fundamentally shift how we think about convenings, about groups coming together to strategize and collaborate. Every crisis presents opportunities and this pandemic is showing us how to fly less and have meaningful and impactful meetings at the same time. In fact, we have found that we can fully thrive in virtual space and get more done than one ever thought possible. This experience has helped us identify five key stages of thriving in virtual space.

STAGE 1: Grieving and Loss

In this first stage, engaging in virtual space painfully reminds us of all of our compounded losses due to COVID-19. We grieve the loss of human connection, resist engaging in virtual space and might even be in denial, simply waiting for it to be over. But then there is no escaping: virtual has become our only option to connect beyond our immediate surroundings 

STAGE 2: Resignation and “Making Do”

In this stage, we drag our heels, realizing we might not have a choice any time soon. While willing to engage, we feel skeptical. Indeed, many of us begrudgingly accepted Zoom meetings and other virtual spaces as unavoidable burdens. And we feel discouraged about screen fatigue, “Zoom bombing” and other security breaches. 

STAGE 3: Acceptance and Curiosity

In stage three, we accept our new reality, and curiosity and playfulness emerge around learning new tools. We play in the sand box of different online platforms, using whiteboards, polls, fishbowls, games and other creative tools for engagement and co-creation, cultivating a sense of hope and possibility. 

In this stage, we figure out better ways to hold online conferences, webinars, and even web-based concerts and exhibitions. Social media shows us a range of different ways to bring art and creativity online in animated and inspiring ways. And we become more curious about what else we can do, welcoming exploration of possibilities. 

STAGE 4: Discovery and Fully Stepping In

In this phase, we have a firm belief that virtual work has a role to play and can accomplish similar but different outcomes to in-person work. We discover that there are great things we can do in virtual space that we cannot necessarily do in-person. 

For example, virtual work is more inclusive, offering the potential of changing power dynamics in ways in-person meetings can’t. Yes, not everyone has the technology to connect from home, but even less people have the resources to travel across the world to attend a conference. Virtual meetings allow more people than ever before to talk to each other and influence processes because everyone is one click away. People with disabilities do not have to worry about accessible buildings or washrooms. Translation is much cheaper, and people can more easily engage with each other across different languages. Also, with different communication channels available, quieter and more introverted people can contribute to the conversation without having to step into the center, exemplified by the use of the chat function. 

In addition, when participants’ families or pets show up in the backgrounds of these calls, it reminds us all that our lives have many different dimensions and that we are more than our work. It removes barriers and relaxes the process. We learn that complex conversations about sticky problems are possible in virtual space, and sometimes with even better results.

Because we are all in our own space and can see into each other’s homes, we may experience a different and deeper connection; some may even feel more comfortable expressing personal thoughts and opinions. There is new terrain and space to transform ways of relating, as well as how to work with conflict and tension. 

In more practical terms, we learn how to identify different platforms for different purposes and ways to ensure digital security. We also learn how to manage the impacts of screen conversations on our brains and stress levels, so that we can stay inspired and present, avoiding “Zoom fatigue”. It is important to allocate time to preparation, keeping in mind that one hour of online meeting time takes roughly three hours to prepare. Also, the meeting itself needs at least one ‘backstage person’ in the role of producer, and a clear purpose, design and the right tools. Other key factors for inspired online gatherings are figuring out the optimum lengths of meetings, understanding the use of body language and physical movement and connecting with our immediate surroundings while being behind our computers 

STAGE 5: The Best of Both Worlds 

In this last stage, we understand that the way of the future is a truly blended model: the best of both worlds. Not only have we discovered the unique role and opportunity of virtual meetings, we are developing a new appreciation for meeting each other in-person. This final stage is about making sure in-person meetings too will never be the same again. 

We won’t be settling for dark windowless hotel conference rooms to get work done: we’ll want authentic and effective experiences that connect our humanity, stimulate all our senses, and makes the most of us sharing proximity to one another.  

Building on what we are have learned from being grounded, we can use virtual and in-person spaces in intersecting ways, with presence and intention. Humans have the incredible capacity to adapt. Let’s reinvent what high impact collaboration, strategizing and convening looks like, and emerge from this pandemic more just, green and collaborative.