Discover five key ingredients for creating deep connections in virtual spaces to strengthen systems leadership.
How do you create a sense of community online? How do you shape a virtual space conducive to open discussions and leadership growth with a group of young professionals scattered across a continent who don’t know each other and don’t have the opportunity to work in person? Tough question, and one I couldn’t fully answer at the beginning of 2022.
I have been part of a great team with amazing colleagues from START and Reos Partners, tasked to co-design and facilitate a social lab within the ProGREEN (Promoting Gains in Renewable Energy) project in West Africa. 16 fellows working on small-scale energy transition in Western Africa were selected among four hundred applicants to attend a ten-month learning process on systems leadership for transformation.
When we finally met the group in person in Dakar at the very end of the process in December 2022, we realised that the relationships formed while we had been working remotely were already strong, and the energy in the group was quite alive. The two days of in-person work in Dakar were also a success because we –participants and facilitators – had established a foundation, some sort of group identity we could build on.
This, to me, was proof that relationships can grow despite distance. Technology can help, and it can be as much an obstacle as an enabler of relationships. It basically depends on us, on our choices – both as designers and users of a process. But apart from an enabling technology, what else does it take to make relationships grow despite distance and time? To me, 5 ingredients might have contributed to this “alchemical” process.
1. Using online sessions for facilitated interactions, not teaching
A conventional approach to learning would have used group sessions online to present and transmit information, leaving interactions between sessions to participants. The essence of a social lab, though, is to flip around the standard structure of a course and use the few precious hours of presence to connect heads, hearts and hands, honouring the power of dialogue, collaboration and creativity to forge learning and relationships.
2. A shared commitment to exploring concepts through sometimes uneasy conversations
Start with questions that put at the centre lived experiences, the whole person, rather than confining learning at the professional or intellectual level. A learning process that puts leadership at the centre is necessarily a growth process, and growth is limited without acceptance and openness to show up fully.
3. A willingness to experiment and play new or different games together
At times, we took some risks in trying out things with the group, adapting exercises we had never done online, experimenting with new ways to engage the fellows’ creativity and exploration without being 100% sure it would have worked. And sometimes it didn’t work exactly as we had expected, but we valued every single drop of learning we could distil out of the experience.
4. A willingness to evolve and change roles
I suspect that one of the elements enabling deep connection was also displaying the willingness to evolve as a facilitation team. In our small team of three, we haven’t always shown up with the same fixed roles and voices, because we were in a way growing with the group and throughout the process.
5. Encouraging presence, visual contact and acting as if the “frame” wasn’t there
It is often tempting – or just practical or convenient – to switch off cameras when we are online. There are always good reasons for it – our busy, ever-multitasking lives, or just unstable connections that don’t work in our favour. Getting out of the “comfortably invisible” bubbles and just being visually accessible to the rest of the group can be a way to encourage undivided attention, albeit framed by a laptop or mobile screen. Also, acting like we would act in real life without losing spontaneity, humour, energy, and movement honours this intention.
So, to conclude, what enables deep connections in virtual spaces? I am not sure that the few thoughts above can be considered a “recipe for success”.They are very personal, incomplete and transient. In the end, I think they all point to the fact that facilitation and teaching can be blended and combined in many ways. But maybe even more importantly, that connections deepen when we design spaces that value exploration, experimentation, dialogue, questioning, and showing up fully as essential pieces of “luggage” to carry in our backpacks for a learning journey.