Outbreaks, break-outs and break-times: Creating caring online workshops

By The Care Operative

The Care Operative details

How can online workshops be productive, engaging, caring and fun? How can researchers creatively adapt to a ‘virtual normal’ and develop caring and co-operative ways of working?

In March 2020, we – 20 international sustainability science colleagues – were prohibited from meeting face-to-face by COVID-19-related travel restrictions. Yet, we had time blocked out and a detailed workshop schedule. Within 48 hours, with invaluable help from experienced facilitator Concepción Piñeiro, we shifted the workshop online, adapting for virtual collaboration.

Here, we share how we made our online workshop productive, engaging and caring.We share what we learned about contrasts with in-person meetings, and identify additional skills and habits for great online interaction in a more detailed report (The Care Operative 2020).

The key principles are: seek to recreate the best things about face-to-face sessions and creatively adapt them to enhance online collaboration.

Get with the programme (and don’t forget breaks)

A key aspect is creating an agenda which allows people to maintain creative energy. At the end of day one of screen-based interaction we were exhausted! We realised the importance of recreating the breathing spaces provided in in-person meetings by moving between rooms or going for refreshments. So for day two we planned time to move around. Sharing images of our surroundings helped build connections and recreate informal corridor chats.

As with in-person workshops, a diverse agenda helps maintain focus, particularly as emails and phones present accessible distractions. The break-out room capabilities of online meeting platforms keep things dynamic. We found making moments for reconnecting with our physical space and our own bodies helped. As energy levels dipped, facilitators introduced challenges such as finding a hat to wear or prompted synchronised movement.

Image copyright: The Care Operative

Varied personal circumstances also featured as participants dipped in and out of home life. Rather than hide crying babies, pets and messy rooms by turning off the camera, it was a great relief to just acknowledge awkward situations – and maybe have a good laugh (or cry!). Noting this explicitly created an accepting atmosphere where people felt comfortable to be present as more than their professional selves.

We made sure to keep thorough records so anyone could catch up later if their time-zone or responsibilities called them away.

Care for a chat?

This caring atmosphere is a key feature of our approach as we cultivate an emotional space that allows for creative thinking. We began each session with a round of checking-in providing the opportunity to arrive in the virtual meeting space, acknowledge our diverse circumstances and agree expectations. Icebreakers and energizers also worked well here – simple exercises like trying to clap in unison, or recreating raindrops on our heads brought in our physical selves whilst highlighting how dispersed we were (350.org n.d.).

Virtual meetings require more discipline to ensure everyone has a chance to speak. Clear communication protocols include raised hands to indicate turn-taking and muting microphones for everyone except the speaker. Such discipline is made much easier by having a designated and skilled facilitator. Good facilitation also makes space for silence and reflection – crucial to more imaginative thinking.

Who’s in and what’s in the ‘fridge’?

Dreaming up and discussing ideas is great, but to progress collaboration requires decisions. Online, it is harder to read a group’s body language or emotions which give a sense of consensus or tensions. To make sure everyone gets a say, we found a structured decision-making process helpful and have been inspired by sociocratic principles (Anon. 2016); see box below.

Structured decision making process to ensure everyone gets a say (The Care Operative, 2020)

Creative discussions generated more ideas than could be explored in the time available. To make sure these were not lost, we placed them in a “virtual fridge”. These included longer-term projects to attend to another time.

Looking back and ahead

Our workshop rounded off by compiling a shared to-do list and time to socialise, an online version of end-of conference drinks.

Then we reflected on the experience. Our time ‘together’ was exhausting yet energising. The online workshop proved a nice transition into working from our respective homes around the world, facing a barrage of online meetings rapidly initiated by our institutions. We cemented the foundations of our online collaboration, committing to weekly meetings to progress activities, check in, laugh, share ‘fika’, even dance. This is proving a welcome support system through unsettling times.

It took a pandemic to crystallise what has long been known: work-related travel can be curtailed. We hope that sharing our experiences will enable others to caringly adapt collaborations across virtual space. Not everything that worked for us will suit other groups. We had the luxury of getting to know each other over 18 months of face-to-face and video meetings before the COVID-19-related travel restrictions were put in place.

We would love to hear what others have learned and what new norms are emerging. Can we rely on virtual formats to replace all types of workshops? How do you recreate features of in-person meetings? What are the benefits or drawbacks for those with caring responsibilities? And how do you care for the whole person whilst only seeing half of them?

350.org. (No Date). Online energisers. (Online): https://trainings.350.org/resource/online-energizers/

Anonymous. (2016), What Is sociocracy and why does democracy need it?’ (Online): https://www.sociocracy.info/what-is-sociocracy/

The Care Operative. (2020). Collaborating with care in virtual sessions. Open Science Foundation. (Online): https://osf.io/c6mk8/

Thanks to the Robert Bosch Stiftung Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership for supporting our collaborations.

The Care Operative (members listed alphabetically, *denotes coordinating authors):
Michael J. Bernstein*, Mollie Chapman*, Isabel Díaz-Reviriego, Gunnar Dressler, Maria Felipe-Lucia, Cecilie Friis*, Sonia Graham*, Hendrik Haenke, L. Jamila Haider*, Mónica Hernández Morcillo, Harry Hoffmann, Maria L. Kernecker, Poppy Nicol*, Concepción Piñeiro, Hannah Pitt*, Caroline Schill*, Verena Seufert, Kesheng Shu, Vivian Valencia, Julie G. Zaehringer*

The combined image of all the authors can also be opened via this link (JPEG 185KB).

Top row (left to right): Michael J. Bernstein, Mollie Chapman, Isabel Díaz-Reviriego, Gunnar Dressler
Second row (left to right): Maria Felipe-Lucia, Cecilie Friis, Sonia Graham, Hendrik Haenke
Third row (left to right): L. Jamila Haider, Mónica Hernández Morcillo, Harry Hoffmann, Maria L. Kernecker
Second last row (left to right): Poppy Nicol, Concepción Piñeiro, Hannah Pitt, Caroline Schill
Last row (left to right): Verena Seufert, Kesheng Shu, Vivian Valencia, Julie G. Zaehringer

Biography: Michael J. Bernstein PhD is an assistant research professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, USA. He investigates science and technology policies for sustainability.

Biography: Mollie Chapman PhD is a senior scientist at the Department of Geography and the University Research Priority Program (URPP) Global Change and Biodiversity, University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her research focuses on environmental values in the context of agriculture and food systems.

Biography: Isabel Díaz-Reviriego PhD is a research associate at the Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany. She is an interdisciplinary environmental scientist interested in biocultural diversity governance from a gender and feminist perspective.

Biography: Gunnar Dressler PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Leipzig, Germany. He focuses on understanding dynamics of complex social-ecological systems under global change, especially the impact of policy instruments on local land-use strategies and livelihoods of smallholders.

Biography: Maria Felipe-Lucia PhD is a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ in Germany and a postdoctoral researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Germany. She is an interdisciplinary researcher investigating drivers and consequences of social-ecological interactions and its various implications on sustainability and equity.

Biography: Cecilie Friis PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. She is a human geographer interested in globalised pressures on land and land-based livelihoods.

Biography: Sonia Graham PhD is a DECRA Research Fellow in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong, Australia. She is a human geographer who investigates environmental collective action, justice, and values in the context of climate adaptation and invasive species management.

Biography: Hendrik Haenke PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Research Unit Environmental and Resource Economics, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany. He investigates the role of global value chains for sustainability challenges and poverty alleviation, livelihood improvement, food security and biodiversity conservation.

Biography: L. Jamila Haider PhD is postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden. She is a sustainability scientist studying the relationships between cultural and biological diversity, through the lens of food.

Biography: Mónica Hernández Morcillo PhD is a scientific associate at the Faculty of Forest and Environment, Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, Germany. She researches forest ecosystems services, human well-being, innovations, multi-actor governance, socio-ecological systems.

Biography: Harry Hoffmann PhD is a researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, Müncheberg, Germany. He is an agricultural researcher specialized in energy as well as food and nutrition security related topics particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Biography: Maria L. Kernecker PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, Müncheberg, Germany. She is an interdisciplinary environmental scientist studying the relationships between farming practices, biological diversity, and food production.

Biography: Poppy Nicol PhD is a research associate at the Sustainable Places Research Institute Cardiff University, UK. She is a geographer interested in the relationships between biological and cultural diversity that come alive through agriculture.

Biography: Concepción Piñeiro is a facilitator at Altekio in Madrid, Spain. She is interested in participatory methodologies, facilitation and innovation for sustainability, socioecosystems and regenerative lifestyles.

Biography: Hannah Pitt PhD is a research fellow at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University, UK. She is a social scientist focusing on skills and knowledge for food production.

Biography: Caroline Schill PhD is a post-doctoral researcher at the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Science and at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden. She is a sustainability science researcher interested in human behaviour and collective action in human-environment interactions in the context of environmental change.

Biography: Verena Seufert PhD is an assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Geography, Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She is a geographer-ecologist interested in how to get food right.

Biography: Kesheng Shu PhD is a researcher at the Department of Bioeconomy and Systems Analysis, Institute of Soil Science and Plant Cultivation, Pulawy, Poland and the Centre for Energy and Environmental Management and Decision‐making, China University of Geosciences, Wuhan, China. He undertakes complex systems simulation and analysis, and is interested in the food-energy-water nexus.

Biography: Vivian Valencia PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands. Her research is motivated by the vision of sustainable and equitable food systems that provide nutritious food for all.

Biography: Julie G. Zaehringer PhD is a senior research scientist at the Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Switzerland. She is a land system scientist investigating the governance and impacts of telecoupled social-ecological systems through transdisciplinary approaches.

5 thoughts on “Outbreaks, break-outs and break-times: Creating caring online workshops”

  1. Thank you for sharing. For sure on-line workshops can replace many of the exhausting travelling we did before Covid-19. And as you described, having a structure, different moments and organization is crucial. I feel that the tiredness that many of my colleagues talk about in regards to on-line meetings is due to being poorly organized and facilitated. As much as I love face-to-face dialogue and acknowledge the benefits of such moments, I definitely motivate everyone promoting on-line meeting to read your blog post and promote a balance mixture between on-line and face-to-face dialogue.
    All the best

    • Thanks for your comment. I wonder if over the last year many of us have also become weary of so many online meetings! In which case good facilitation is even more important.

  2. Thank you for this great post! Having just wrapped up the virtual SciTS 2020 conference I can attest to the importance of so many points in this article. From the moment that we made the switch to a virtual format, SciTS Conference Planning Committee was intrigued by finding ways of “getting the best of both worlds.” Namely, how to adapt the best parts of in-person conferences to a virtual setting, and how to leverage the virtual format to make the conference experience as a whole better. To these ends, we created two new conference interaction elements: one to mimic the informal chats that happen at the coffee carafe after an inspiring keynote or plenary session, and a second to provide an opportunity for connections and synergies in the submitted program to be synthesized and developed. While a lot of upfront work was required in the design, conceptualizaton and clear communication of instructions for these new modalities, our preliminary evaluations have been remarkably positive.

    On a more personal note, I’m intrigued by your question “[H]ow do you care for the whole person whilst only seeing half of them?” I have recently recognized that while I see many of my coworkers for half of their waking hours, I only see them at work, and in an environment that is mostly not of their creating. I now believe that virtual collaboration work provides an opportunity for a more intimate understanding of and caring for the person with whom you are working, because you get a more comprehensive view of the things they care about.

    • Hi Kristine,

      Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s great to hear of similar efforts to recreate the best of in-person interactions in an online format. Given that many conferences are shifting online this year, I would love to hear how you’ve implemented this for a conference worth of participants.

      I’d never heard of SCiTS, the team science approach sounds great and very much aligned with how we try to work as a Care Operative.

      I agree with you about an online space providing a different perspective of our colleagues, what they value and care about. One of the most moving online exercises I undertook with a different set of colleagues was to ask everyone to bring a plant to the zoom meeting and describe what it meant to them at that moment in time and/or in relation to our group. The plants that people brought were diverse – pot plants (real and plastic), a drawing of a plant, a plant dug up from the garden, and the tree they could see from their window – as were stories they told. It helped me to feel connected to their everyday lives in a way that I might never have appreciated if we weren’t online, at home, and being creative in this virtual space.



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