Virtual Community Engagement: Connecting Digitally

  • Author: A Conrick
  • Date: July 2, 2020
Cartoon Faces with Headsets on Computer Screen

Over the past few months, people all over the country have turned to digital platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google, FaceTime, and other technology solutions to quickly pivot and connect virtually.

Even as states and jurisdictions begin a phased return to the “new” normal, virtual connections are likely to remain in place as long-terms tool for engagement. Whether you still in a stay-at-home order, living or working in a COVID-19 hotspot, or are looking to engage with vulnerable populations that are self-selecting to isolate – the way we reach and work with communities will be forever changed.

This blog discusses how to effectively integrate virtual community engagement work given the ongoing pandemic. As mobility managers, we hope these lessons will be able to provide ideas or insights into how you can re-imagine your work in our new reality.

Prioritize familiarity with virtual platforms. Not all participants will be comfortable or familiar with the plethora of new technology platforms available for virtual connection. Learning these new platforms can be stressful for both participants and hosts. One way to get around this is to create and share easy to understand tutorials, or even provide on-on-one support in advance for community members that need extra assistance. Your chosen platform likely has a tutorial on their website for new users.

Engage the right folks in your virtual room. Using and integrating technology is the easier half of successful virtual engagement. Hosts should consider how they are reaching out to the community, and barriers to access for key populations. Virtual engagement without forethought can further marginalize groups that are already often left out of our work due to technological, internet, language, or schedule barriers. For example, make sure to consider how to incorporate closed captioning, ASL interpreters, or translation services/meetings in multiple language to allow for inclusivity in the virtual space. 

Provide strong facilitation but also room for group sharing. As with any community meeting, a balance between leadership and group sharing is key. Virtually, communication can be disjointed, lack body language cues, and feel interrupted due to internet connection issues. Virtual meetings require an extra layer of facilitation skills to be successful.

Create a safe space. As we all experience this crisis, participants may feel more vulnerable than usual. It is important to create a space where participants can feel comfortable potentially having vulnerable conversations and feel validated when sharing. Utilizing empathic communication is vital to building trust in a virtual setting. Some facilitators may want to utilize “virtual” breakout rooms as a way for smaller group sharing. (You can find resources and tips for empathic communication via phone and video here).  

Find a way to maintain a community feel.  Even though meetings and community engagement events are moving to a virtual format, maintaining many of the personal gestures can make a difference and help people feel welcome and appreciated. From sending food or snacks in advance, to including a stipend for involvement –  many of the ways we currently engage community can remain in place. In addition, acknowledging and compensating community members for their time and expertise remains important even in a virtual setting.

Think beyond just the virtual meeting. There are a variety of different interactive online platforms, and the more that you engage, the broader cross-section of stakeholders you can connect with. From tapping into social media, emails, and other virtual means of connection – it allows mobility managers to meet people where they are, in terms of engagement. For those without internet access or a personal computer, making sure meetings can be held concurrently via phone access so all interested can be involved.

Acknowledge the pros and cons of virtual engagement. While virtual meetings, events and other forms of virtual engagement can offer new opportunities, decrease costs, and potentially increase engagement, it is always important to keep in mind who has access to such tools and offer ways to be as inclusive as possible.  We must act carefully to ensure that people are not left behind or left out in our transition to a more virtual world.

As mobility managers, community engagement is a core piece of the daily work. Integrating successful virtual engagement is critical to maintaining community interactions and supports throughout the pandemic. Additionally, the effects of this pandemic on how we all work will likely create lasting change; virtual engagement while not able to completely replace in-person interactions, will likely become a much larger tool in our toolbox in the years to come. Beginning to test and learn now will allow us to serve our communities better in the long-run.



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