I was a virtual exhibitor at an online conference this past week and one of the participants, knowing that I’m a facilitator and learning designer of virtual/online learning experiences, asked me this question:

How can I make virtual spaces nourishing for participants and facilitators?

First of all, I have to say that I love the word “nourishing” in general and especially when it’s applied to our work creating effective and engaging virtual meetings and learning events. So here are some of the things I’d like to suggest in response to this question, particularly thinking about the events we design in Zoom or Zoom-like virtual environments.

  • Recognize that not everything is a meeting, sometimes it’s an email instead. Choose to have virtual meetings when your purpose is to invite discussion and collaboration. Be very clear on your purpose of why you’re holding the meeting or learning event.
  • Do pre-assessments. What do people want to learn or connect about? What would make the session meaningful and relevant to them? What are they bringing to the session as prior knowledge that you can draw in?
  • Be yourself online and encourage others to do the same. Be human, be authentic. Show up as the real you.
  • Don’t ever read from scripts.
  • Model that it’s ok to make mistakes and recover from them. I go so far as to tell people that I expect “weird things to happen” in the online environment and that when they do happen, we’re going to just roll with it.
  • Include social times in the session. I like to craft a “start before the start” experience, opening the virtual room ten minutes early to meet and greet people. I invite people to say hi to others they know in the session, either verbally or in the chat. Encourage connection. I’ve heard of others designing in social breakout rooms before the session starts.
  • Give permission for people to do the things they need to do to take care of themselves in the virtual environment. Why not invite people to stand when they need to or turn off their camera temporarily if they need to have a little wiggle-fest for themselves?
  • Schedule formal breaks in longer sessions. I like to include at least a five-minute break in a 1.5 hour session and more if the session is longer. Encourage people to “balance their fluids” (thanks Cara Jones for that phrase) and stretch and move their body as they need to during the break.
  • Use your platform in creative ways. I’m still coming across people who don’t know the annotation feature in Zoom exists, for example. Learn about these tools and use them as they fit the purpose of your session. (But choose wisely. You don’t have to use all the features all the time. Get to know your participants and what they can handle.)
  • Give people options about how to participate, particularly if they are coming in on different devices where certain features such as annotation are difficult or impossible. I like to encourage participants to contribute via annotation (if we’re using it), in the chat and/or by picking up their mic to say something verbally if they wish.
  • Lastly, don’t capitulate to what you think the “shoulds” and “should nots” are in your setting or sector. Redefine what you think of as professional. Professional can also mean bringing humour to an event and having fun. Design experiences that are enjoyable. (Don’t we all want to participate in those kinds of sessions?)

How are you making virtual spaces nourishing? I’d love to hear.

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