Zoom Fatigue and Missing Hugs

What it takes to create meaningful public engagement and outreach in a physically distanced world.

Our connections with others have done a 180 during this global pandemic. Everything from our daily interactions with co-workers and neighbors to hugs left ungiven to our families and friends. Over the past year, staying physically apart from one another has been crucial to maintaining our collective health and safety. Though necessary, the need for physical distancing has made making deep, meaningful connections difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible.

Like almost every other organization across the country, in early 2020 RDG Planning & Design moved from in-office work to a work-from-home model, leveraging technology platforms such as Zoom to continue creating and collaborating across teams and with clients. Given that our firm had already upgraded technology to support the demands of this offsite workforce, this transition was mostly seamless. A bigger challenge emerged in how we would become or stay connected with the communities we serve. Pre-pandemic, our practice involved a great deal of in-person community engagement through activities such as open houses, on-site forums and interviews. In a physically distanced world, we’ve had to adapt our outreach and engagement tactics to keep momentum. As we strive to keep safety and equity at the forefront, we found we must consider ways to foster the same level of connection we did before COVID-19.

How can we meet people where they are when most of us are staying home?

The answer is at once simple and complex. Meaningful public engagement is all about making and maintaining connections – connections to each other, connections to a project, connections to a team and connections to our communities. The good news is, though they don’t replace in-person interactions, there are a number of strategies and tools we can use to continue meaningful public engagement and outreach in a physically distanced world.

Leverage Technology to Mimic Face to Face Interactions

Technology has played a critical role in helping us meet the challenge of the times. Tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become ubiquitous, replacing old school phone calls with the chance to continue to speak “face to face.” In terms of community engagement, these tools also typically provide polling tools for data collection, breakout rooms that allow groups to cover multiple topics at one time and webinar recordings for people to view later. When we combine virtual calling and chat capabilities with other programs like Social Pinpoint, Survey Monkey and social media platforms, we’re able to recreate an event experience from the safety and comfort of a couch without having to purchase a plane ticket, put gas in a car or risk exposure to the coronavirus.

Molly Hanson recording audio for a video feature in preparation for an RDG virtual event.

One personal example of leveraging technology for meaningful public engagement was RDG’s 2020 holiday open house in Des Moines, Iowa. Normally this event is well-attended and offers the chance for us to engage and connect with clients, community members and peers. It is the holiday party of the season for downtown Des Moines (if you ask me).  When the time came to decide whether to have it, we opted to throw a virtual open house party, hoping that people would still want to attend. We created a bingo game for people to play throughout the night, assigned RDGers as hosts of more intimate breakout rooms and encouraged attendees to “roam” just as they would if they were in a physical space. It took as much work and planning as the traditional in-person event does, but also afforded us the chance to interact with clients and friends from around the country, many of whom have never been able to join the traditional in-person party. As the event wound down and many of us were sitting in breakout rooms with drinks in hand, we reflected on how much fun it had been to “see” everyone and laugh and celebrate the season together. 

The Technology Caveat

We’ve learned a lot over the past year and the techniques we’ve used to garner information and feedback are far from perfect. Issues of equity come up anytime Wi-Fi is required to participate, not to mention access to the devices needed to log in. Language barriers, sensory sensitivity, hearing and vision impairments and the closure of schools and childcare facilities can also make participation difficult or impossible for many. Zoom fatigue is real and we can always get better at communicating with each other within digital spaces. Though there are advantages and cost-saving opportunities, “going virtual” is not a silver bullet to solving engagement inequity problems. We must work to put equity and access at the front of our minds as we plan outreach strategies, and the tactics we use to achieve this need to be determined by and specific to the client and the community being served.

Another technology caveat concerns security and the need to ensure virtual meetings don’t get hijacked by uninvited individuals or groups. “Zoom bombing” or “Zoom raiding,” as it is often referred to, involves the practice of internet trolls commandeering a video-conference call or meeting with the intent of intruding with unwanted, disruptive and often inappropriate or discriminatory content. Speaking from experience, it is an alarming thing to have happen. At its worst, it runs the risk of causing serious harm or trauma to those exposed. Fortunately for us, there are steps we can take to reduce the risk of getting Zoom bombed:

  • Avoid sharing meeting information publicly, such as posting a meeting ID or password on social media or a website.
  • Utilize the Zoom Webinar feature, which gives sole control to the host.
  • Create a registration requirement ahead of a virtual event, which enables an additional checkpoint for hosts to see who will be joining ahead of time. 
  • Leverage additional Zoom features such as those that allow the host to mass shut off everyone’s video and audio capabilities without ending the meeting.

If you experience a Zoom bombing incident, the easiest and most effective solution is simply to end the meeting and reschedule for another time with heightened security in place. Bombers have been known to utilize offensive and racist language and symbolism that can be extremely distressing and offensive to participants. If you shut it down, you take away their power to harm.

It’s unfortunate that we must talk about the unpleasant parts, but it should be seen as an opportunity to learn, grow and serve our clients better in the future. We want to create public forums for communication because we want people to see themselves in final project designs.

Create Spaces Where Participants Can Engage and Interact

Whether we’re in person or virtual, meaningful public engagement goes back to making those connections and our efforts to ensure the folks we’re talking to feel heard and part of the process. As a professional facilitator, I know that running a meeting and engaging with a group is easier (and frankly, more fun) in person, but we can also make our digital discussions meaningful so long as we make sure listening is the most important part of the process. In our work with clients and communities, we’ve gotten quality participation and feedback from virtual interviews, focus groups, open houses and surveys. One of our recent park surveys garnered over 400 responses in less than two weeks!

The good news is we have many tools in our toolbox. As an example, a colleague and I recently had the opportunity to present at a virtual conference. We took advantage of our 90-minute timeslot to lean into our topic, leveraging both internal and external resources to put together a panel of experts who could speak about the conjunction of thoughtful design, equity in public spaces and public health. Our panelists spoke about their personal experiences and answered questions from the facilitators and the audience, while our GIS expert pulled up maps intermittently and used real-time data to support and emphasize points being made about local issues that need to be addressed. The audience was able to ask questions and comment the entire time.  It was one of the most meaningful conference presentations I’ve been a part of for a long time and it worked so well because of – not in spite of – its virtual format.

Consider Offering a Hybrid Approach

Now cities are beginning to open up. Students are going back to school. Many of us are going back into office buildings. Our teams are being invited to meetings. Small, masked in-person meetings and workshops are happening with more frequency. Even as an increasing number of adults in the U.S. become vaccinated, with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and continued recommendations against large-scale, in-person gatherings, it’s safe to assume we’ll continue to offer some kind of virtual element for our meetings and events for the foreseeable future.

Enter, the hybrid event.

Hybrid events combine an in-person component with an online or digital experience. With a hybrid event, the scope of the digital component might encompass everything from Twitter chats to live-stream sessions or virtual engagement spaces. These formats can offer the ability to ease back into live events and can be especially beneficial for individuals who still feel hesitant to travel or gather in groups. Additionally, events that incorporate both in-person and virtual components can be more cost-effective and allow organizers to reach a broader and more comprehensive audience. While virtual and in-person audiences certainly have different needs that should be accounted for, there are ways to create engagement sessions that consider both. It’s helpful to think through how content can be adapted to ensure an engaging experience for both in-person and virtual participants. You may also consider adding additional moderators to monitor and help facilitate conversations and using breakout rooms to allow for more intimate, in-depth conversations in the digital space.

RDGers in Des Moines use the video wall in The Exchange space at 301 Grand to conduct a hybrid in-person / virtual project meeting.

To help ensure digital participants feel as included as in-person attendees, strive to offer the same or similar opportunities for interaction with each other and with presenters and encourage use of chat and Q&A features. Incorporating what works well with our current digital approach into a hybrid engagement strategy can yield some great results as long as we remember that each project, community and person is unique. Simply put, a one size fits all model probably doesn’t even fit one, and so when planning hybrid events, it’s critical to consider the audience, the community, your moderators/presenters and how the content can be used to uniquely cater to the needs and wants of each.

Let’s face it, we miss each other. We miss collaborating at work and eating lunch with friends. We miss attending conferences and traveling to new places for the next big project. As designers and planners, it’s up to us to remember that every project is about people. Our ability to connect helps us understand the needs, passions and dreams of the folks and communities we serve, some of whom are still very much struggling with the challenges brought on or brought to light by COIVD-19. It is our job to listen, meet them where they are and help them take one step forward. The last year has been, in a word, surreal. In many ways, the “uncertain times” have simply become the times we’re living in. The “average” workday doesn’t exist like it used to, but the reasons we show up each day remain the same. The world continues to move forward. And so do we. 

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Molly Hanson is RDG’s Conservation and Community Outreach Specialist. Based out of the firm’s Des Moines, Iowa office, she works across RDG’s markets to support facilitation, public engagement and conservation-based project management. She currently co-chairs RDG’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and is training to be a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach.

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