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Engagement is at the core of Ayers Saint Gross’s practice. It is foundational to all our interactions, and built on listening, understanding, and sharing. Our engagement practices have long been a hybrid of face-to-face interactions and digital methods, but as our ways of working and living have adapted to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our digital methods have expanded to include new technologies. This is a shift our team has made thoughtfully to ensure the client-focused nature of our engagement doesn’t change. We produced this video highlighting aspects of our virtual engagement process:

For much of my career, I’ve spent a great deal of time with people, engaging clients face-to-face and forging relationships. One thing the pandemic has reinforced is the importance of those relationships as an irreplaceable piece of how we work. So how do we nurture relationships when we can’t be together in person? Having a mastery of the tools mentioned in the video is a must, but equally important is maintaining the authenticity and energy that comes from face-to-face meetings. We often say that planning is a process as much as it is a product. Much of that process is creating a series of experiences across multiple forums to ensure all voices are heard and all ideas are shared.

Here are some of my lessons learned for more effective virtual engagement:

Shorter meetings work better. Traditionally, in-person workshops can be multi-day experiences. There is a great deal of value in being in the same room, spending time getting to the heart of problem-solving for a specific project.  With virtual engagement, it is often better to have multiple, shorter work sessions. These more frequent touchpoints still center around personal connections, but are more workable and realistic with the virtual format. Where longer meetings are a must, including different forms of engagement throughout keeps people focused and actively participating in the meeting.

Take a second to breathe. It is important with digital collaboration to create some space once you or someone else is done speaking. Though a virtual meeting can still be very exciting and invigorating, you can’t chime in directly after someone in quite the same way you can in face-to-face interaction.

Preparation is key. Think through the agenda and how people will engage with the tools. If the tool is something they haven’t used before, send a tutorial ahead of time. Spend time at the beginning of the meeting to orient people. The best virtual engagement sessions take the best from face-to-face interaction and elevate the experience with digital tools. Be sure to give people space to express themselves and if there is a large group consider using breakout sessions for portions of a meeting. This helps keep everyone involved authentically. I have also really come to value chat features to have more people participate and document their thoughts alongside verbal conversation. And of course, we all need to laugh at ourselves from time to time. Even with all the preparation in the world, glitches will occur, life will intervene, any number of things may happen. Remember: we’re all human and we’re all learning.

We are excited to continue experimenting with and elevating virtual engagement practices. Beyond the pandemic, we envision many long-term benefits including reducing our carbon footprint, reaching broader stakeholder groups, and adding workable, accessible touchpoints to our processes. We look forward to continuing to learn and collaborate with you.

Jessica Leonard is an associate principal in the planning and architecture groups. Contact Jessica.