The transformation of engagement: Community considerations for driving online conversation

April 29, 2020

Each community requires its own engagement approach. Here’s how we’re staying connected during COVID-19.

 

By Michele Perret and Joanna Wilkins

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world in ways that none of us have felt before. Even with early warnings, the impacts of the global health emergency still seemed like they occurred in a sweeping and immediate fashion. While the changes we are experiencing are challenging, the global response to COVID-19 is a testament to the power of people working together to achieve a common goal: health and safety for all.

Ironically enough, it was on Friday the 13th (March 2020) that our lives were turned upside down. At Stantec, that was the day we made the decision to start mobilizing our workforce to work remotely. Thanks to the flexibility of employees—and an unprecedented effort by our information technology team—we were able to get more than 19,000 employees working from home within a week.

Now, as we all do our part to practice physical distancing and stop the spread, we are searching for ways to maintain our connection with the clients and communities we serve. As engagement specialists, it’s our job to form a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between people and projects—and we’re not going to let COVID-19 keep us down.

So, those of us who work with community members, project stakeholders, and Indigenous communities have been reflecting on our past experiences in the field. Our goal? To identify the most effective way to continue our engagement efforts during these trying times of uncertainty and isolation.

 

Now, as we all do our part to practice physical distancing and stop the spread, we are searching for ways to maintain our connection with the clients and communities we serve.

 

Preparing for a post-pandemic resurgence

As we are likely to lament on these unprecedented societal changes, we must also remember that life goes on. We need to be prepared for when the world reopens for business. And as a global engineering firm with a diverse team of experts, we are uniquely positioned to help _q_tweetable:As any engagement specialist will tell you, there is no silver bullet solution to effective online communication._q_communities, cities, and even countries rebound from the harrowing effects of COVID-19.

For us, that means finding ways to keep people connected with project developments in their communities. We know that face-to-face interaction is the most effective way to communicate with stakeholders, but we also know that it is not possible right now. So, we’re searching for ways to go virtual. The challenge? Finding the right approach.

As any engagement specialist will tell you, there is no silver bullet solution to effective online communication. Especially during times like these. We need to recognize that people are responding to COVID-19 in their own ways—some may not be ready to engage yet, while others may be seeking a needed distraction from the pandemic.

There are several online tools we can use to reach our stakeholders, but we need to provide enough options to maximize engagement with different user groups. When planning online stakeholder engagement sessions, keep in mind that:

  1. There are hundreds of online engagement tools available
  2. The online engagement tool you choose can affect participation
  3. You must seek out shortcomings to keep your project moving forward

 

1. Making strategic choices

Before you navigate through the hundreds of online engagement tools out there, start by asking yourself the basic question: what are you trying to accomplish? Each tool will typically have one specific strength and, in general, focus on one of the following:

  • Conducting an online survey
  • Providing information to people or groups
  • Generating feedback on an idea or concept
  • Facilitating a virtual conversation or workshop

Although many tools will say they can achieve all the above, they likely don’t. So, make sure you establish your mission right at the outset to avoid using a tool that will ultimately cost you time, money, and accurate results. Try before you buy.

There are many great digital options available for engagement practitioners and our clients. In fact, we’ve already run some very successful virtual workshops in New Zealand. For a masterplan project in Piopiotahi Milford Sound, we are using videos between our project team and local Māori tribes to help build relationships and shared understandings during the restricted stages of the government’s response to COVID-19. We are planning to do more digital engagement events to help our clients attain essential feedback on their projects.

 

There are several online tools we can use to reach our stakeholders, but we need to provide enough options to maximize engagement with different user groups.

 

2. Promoting participation

After you’ve established the clear objective of your study, it’s time to think about the people you will be engaging with. Imagine how they will experience the tool. Who are you trying to reach?

Addressing these questions will help garner higher levels of participation. To that end, consider adopting the following approaches:

  • Use a tool that is intuitive for users. Helping participants feel knowledgeable and comfortable goes along way in engagement efforts.
  • Organize a pre-meeting. This allows participants to familiarize themselves with you and the tool before your scheduled meeting, making it more productive.
  • Watch the bandwidth! Most of us are isolating with our families, leaving our internet capabilities strapped. Use a tool that doesn’t take up too much bandwidth, which will likely reduce the bounce rate.
  • Include personal registration. This can help to keep participants accountable for their comments but can also deter people from providing the feedback you are looking for. Tread softly here.

It’s important to also note that in our new normal, almost everything is done on a screen. Ordering groceries, visits with friends and family, exercise classes, school lessons. As our screen time continues to increase, we understand that online engagement is now competing for our attention. The key? Streamlining engagement efforts to maintain your audience’s attention and avoid any potential distractions.

 

3. Seek out online shortcomings to move your projects forward

As we outlined earlier: as cool and useful as the online tool is, it cannot completely replace face-to-face engagement. It’s wonderful to visualize participants during a video chat, but it’s still not the same as being with them in person. Like most good engagement processes, there needs to be a mixture of traditional tools, alongside the online approach.

Physical isolation doesn’t mean that everyone has the same experience or capacity to engage online. It is important to think about the people or groups you want to engage and imagine how they will experience the tool. You may be trying to reach a broad group of people with a wide range of experience—from a little to a lot. In order to have effective engagement, you need to find the tool that will make all parties comfortable and productive. Consider the following challenges:

  • Some people with significant computing experience may rely on computers at the library or a community center, which are currently closed. How will they access a computer with enough capacity to participate?
  • Remote communities may be more familiar with Facebook than other tools, so should that be considered when choosing a tool?
  • Some of your participants may be persons with disabilities—is your online engagement tool accessible to all?

To overcome these obstacles, you may have to plan for flexibility. Also, make sure your agenda is tight and that you are uber-organized to keep the conversation focused. There is no “one-size fits all” approach here—we need to plan accordingly to reconcile the tools we have with the audience we’re trying to reach.

 

Authors Joanna Wilkins, left, and Michele Perret say that our current physical distancing allows us to create new and innovative ways of connecting with clients and communities.

 

As we look ahead

As the days pass in our makeshift home offices, our hope that everything will return to normal remains strong. We are optimists—we believe we will overcome COVID-19, together.

But we also believe that we can use these times of physical distancing to create new and innovative ways of connecting with clients and communities. Online engagement tools can help us to generate meaningful conversations with project stakeholders in the short term. But in the face of COVID-19, finding new, virtual methods of communicating will help protect us all in the long term.

 

About the authors

Michele Perret is a community engagement lead working from Edmonton, Alberta. Michele has 25 years of experience leading high-stakes community engagement on some of the largest, most controversial projects in Canada.

Joanna Wilkins is a stakeholder engagement consultant in Auckland, New Zealand. Jo has consulted on several large New Zealand Transport Agency projects including an indicative business case for the Melling Intersection and a new expressway from Ōtaki to north of Levin.

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