Our meetup finds a new way of working

New Thinking 23 March 2020 Allen Geer

Assurity experienced one of its first challenges in response to COVID-19 recently. In Wellington, Assurity hosts a regular New Ways of Working meetup that hosts different speakers presenting on a variety of topics around new ways of working in exchange for a small donation to charity. This meetup engages with Wellington’s professional community to provide great content and help raise awareness around modern ways of working. 

This past week however, COVID-19 forced Assurity to rethink how it could responsibly host these events and issued guidance that they would no longer be able to host these scale events for the near term. 

This left our meetup organisers and speakers in a bit of a scramble to determine the best way to respond – the decision being relayed on Monday afternoon and the next meetup happening at noon the following day.

Meetups are largely in-person events and speaking to groups about professional topics requires a fair bit of interaction. Our speakers often run interactive games and activities in their sessions to engage attendees with the content. These activities facilitate as much learning from the speaker as from each other. How could we offer a similar experience without the luxury of having folks in the room – being able to see their faces and reduce the barrier to share with the group?

New ways of working are all about responding quickly to rapidly-changing situations. When applied to software development and delivery, new ways of working help people build the right software faster and get it out to end users rapidly. 

But these principles of being safe to take chances, to putting out minimally viable solutions in effort to learn from them and refine them, don’t have to be specific to software development and delivery. These are principles to any endeavour that folks undertake.

What good would a New Ways of Working meetup be if it couldn’t respond to a rapidly-changing environmental context? A very quick team sprang up to respond to this challenge and, with a lot of hard work, we were able to pivot and move our meetup to a virtual meetup within a matter of minutes. 

No approvals were sought, no one asked for permission to take this chance… the team aligned and activated with our shared values – to act in the spirit of the meetup and the promise of the value of new ways of working. 

By the time the meetup had rolled around at noon the next day, the content was prepared and over 40 had signed up to this new, virtual meetup. We had quite a few learnings and insights from running it remotely.

A wider audience and greater accessibility 

By running the meetup virtually, even with a publicising window of less than 14 hours, we had more attendees to the virtual meetup than we would have had to the physical one. This gave us a much broader reach to share our ideas and proved to us that we have a digital platform we can take advantage of.  

Additionally, people were able to join our meetup from locations that would make it challenging to attend. We even had one attendee all the way from the South Island in Wanaka. The remote platform simply has a much greater reach and engagement potential than an in-person meetup. 

Engagement with the audience

Engaging with your audience in a webinar format requires deliberate effort and the right technology to enable. We ran our meetup using Zoom which provides a chat interface for folks to ask questions while the presenter is speaking. 

It also allows for simultaneous sharing of the video of the speaker and the slides. These types of features are essential in a remote broadcasting platform from the audience and the speaker perspectives.

Handovers with speaking in remote broadcasts can be challenging. Delays and bandwidth can make proper handover from speaker to audience engagement awkward. It can also be uncomfortable for attendees to speak up to a group of folks they can neither see nor hear. This is where the chat system and the hand-raising feature of Zoom can work well. Unfortunately, as you can see in our recording of the event, you have to have your volume up to hear your audience.

The other thing is that engaging with the audience can be successful, but you have to give it time. We ran a small exercise in the session where we asked folks to share a time where fear affected them in the workplace. I had to remain silent for two minutes while folks started responding. Each second can feel like days when you are broadcasting. 

The key is to relax and give people an opportunity to think and respond. The interactions are not going to be as fast as they are in person – but they will happen with patience. 

Presenting an effective webinar is a team effort

One of the first things I noticed with running this session is that it requires a lot of awareness of several things. You have members to admit from the waiting room, you have the slides and the speaker notes to manage, you have to be aware of the chats coming in… all while providing lots of content that isn’t easily clickable, notable or saveable. The best solution is to have a teammate helping you manage all of this.

We teamed up to deliver the meetup with one person speaking and the other managing the chat questions, as well as sharing relevant links to the topics we were discussing. This technique of ensuring that folks were getting a responsive, information-rich experience helped to make the session valuable for attendees. 

It also gave people an immediate set of links to bookmark so that they could go do more research on their own. This isn’t something we can do that well in an in-person meetup that really shined in the virtual one. 

We’re all going to be challenged in the coming weeks with how we modernise and adapt our ways of working. New ways of working are all about responding effectively to rapidly-changing situations and environments. 

Being creative and using the right tooling effectively is what is going to help us be productive in these times that necessitate social distancing. Ensuring your teams have the independence to act in accordance with your team’s values without needless oversight will be tantamount to ensuring your success. Trust your teams, align them with the shared values and empower them with the right tools – and we will help our community face the challenges of COVID-19 and succeed in the face of adversity.

Some feedback from our session

Thanks everyone – great session! And thanks for turning this around in such a short amount of time”

“Thanks Allen and the others at Assurity. Good to try the new format. Cheers, see you soon!”

Different ways of working and responding to changing circumstances in action... otherwise known as living our values, being adaptive and embracing challenge as an opportunity” Grant Robinson, GM, Assurity, Wellington