The events of 2020 have ushered in a slew of new norms around most aspects of professional life. With almost all of CDR’s work moving online, at least for the time being, routines that seemed hard to imagine just several months ago have quickly become second nature. (Five Zoom meetings in a day, anyone?)
One area that has been particularly impacted by the shift to virtual formats has been internal team building. Previously, it was easy for CDR staff to pop across the office for a quick check-in or schedule a mid-week happy hour, preferably somewhere with a patio. But over the last few months, those regular in-person get-togethers have become all but impossible. To make up for this lack of face-to-face interaction, CDR has implemented a variety of virtual team-building activities so staff members can stay connected:
Yoga: Since March, CDR has not only taken part in virtual staff and client meetings, but also in virtual Downward Facing Dogs, Shavasanas, and occasionally, Half Pigeons. Online yoga classes have been both a stress reliever and a way of developing comradery while the team has been stuck at home. Although it’s not quite the same as being in a yoga studio, the classes have offered an opportunity to unwind, decompress, and share a good laugh at the office’s combined lack of flexibility.
Trivia: Many virtual meeting platforms offer chat functions that can be used for a number of work- or non-work-related tasks. Indeed, CDR has been pushing the limits of the latter by using the Zoom chat function to play rounds of virtual trivia. Some of the most memorable question categories include pottery mishaps (Jonathan Bartsch), baby goats (Taber Ward), and punk rock lyrics (Jeffrey Range).
Art Class: One of the more unique virtual team building activities for CDR was an art class led by none other than CDR’s own Emily Zmak. Emily guided the team through a series of increasingly challenging art exercises that culminated in the group depicting itself in a familiar predicament: back at the office trying to decide what type of pizza to order––hopefully this will prove to be an art-induced premonition.
Happy Hour: Even amid all these creative team building activities, sometimes it’s necessary to get back to basics. CDR’s virtual happy hours have been just that, and have become a staple of the workweek over the previous three months. These online kick-backs have been an opportunity for the team to catch up on life outside of work, swap quarantine stories, and continue bonding while adjusting to the new normal of 2020. From our virtual office to yours: Cheers!
Maintaining Credibility – Being Creative and Adaptive – Remaining Vigilant
Public Engagement has radically changed in the last few months, likely never returning to pre-COVID practices. Already a growing trend, virtual public and stakeholder engagement accelerated at warp speed to keep projects, public policy and community services in motion.
With foundational commitments to genuine engagement, client success, continuous learning, and being nimble and adaptive, CDR ramped up its approach to virtual engagement expanding technological abilities and applying best practices. Pausing to reflect on the last few months and considering our collective future, we are offering lessons learned and both cautions and hopes for the future of engagement.
Maintaining Credibility in Public and Stakeholder Engagement
Successful virtual engagement is occurring across the spectrum of projects we’ve been working on in transportation, water and land management. Already adding virtual tools to our engagement toolbox, CDR was poised to rapidly transition support to our clients on current and new projects. Hundreds of people have provided input to Colorado’s State Highway 52 planning project through multiple virtual engagement platforms. Dozens of partner representatives from across the State of Colorado effectively engaged in ratifying partner protocols and developing a vision and objectives for Fishers Peak, Colorado’s next state park. FedNet utilizes video conferencing to foster understanding and improving relationships. The Wildlife & Transportation Alliance has used virtual forums to expand understanding and address sticky issues.
Being Creative and Adaptive is Essential in our Changing Environment Adapting to New Realities Through Technology, Honoring Proven Concepts in Engagement
With an ethic of supporting genuine community engagement, CDR’s clients have maintained or strengthened the credibility of public projects by continuing to connect with community members through creative means. Using new tools in the toolbox requires just as much, if not more, time and effort to genuinely engage people in deliberations. We’ve made observations ranging from tactical needs to social dynamics in recent months. A sampling of practical and tactical advice for facilitating large groups includes:
Advance homework and/or surveys help orient participants, mitigating the need for long presentations
Preparing “virtual rooms” is just as important as preparing for “in-person rooms” – prepare a virtual room by making sure the technology works, participants know how to use technology, virtual strategies and tools are tested, etc.
“Breakout” rooms are your friend – have a co-host who can support conversation and summarize outcomes
Shared documents – either being revised in real time, or participants modifying themselves – demonstrates listening and shaping content by constituents
A Facilitation Buddy System – Managing chat functions, sorting participants into rooms, managing documents, capturing input and facilitating discussion requires more than one facilitator. Larger groups may need multiple facilitators for efficient, effective management
Use a variety of tools to help people offer perspective – options such as polling, Social Pinpoint, sticky note simulators and others provide avenues for people who might be more comfortable participating in ways other than speaking
Incorporate Breaks – Virtual engagement is exhausting – in some cases we are seeing people go from Virtual meeting to Virtual meeting – only there are no natural breaks – such as walking, riding or driving between meetings. Schedule breaks every hour, ask participants to walk around the block, get a snack and get away from the computer for 10 minutes.
Continued Non-Tech Strategies – hard-to-reach populations still need mail-in/phone surveys, informational mailers, working with community leaders with existing relationships and communication avenues, with translation services supporting all
Off-Line Check-Ins – During in person engagement, facilitators and client leads can have side conversations to check in and adjust processes and agendas in real time. Set up other platforms to check in mid-meeting to make those course corrections.
All Ages are Participating – We have seen all ages up their game in use of technology.
It Requires Time and Effort – There might be misperceptions that virtual engagement requires less time and work to implement. Our experience demonstrates that it takes just as much time and effort, if not more, as in-person engagement!
Keep Learning – As we learn from and have access to new engagement techniques and technology, observe what is working and what isn’t and apply key take-aways to next sessions.
Remaining Vigilant About Genuine Engagement and Implications for Our Future
Intentional action is required to foster genuine engagement across communities and partnerships. There is risk to simply “checking the box” to meet minimum requirements for public process. We are asking ourselves questions and raising concerns to remain vigilant:
Are there populations and geographic regions we are missing because of non-existent or unreliable access to technology?
Are we using the current COVID-19 environment as an excuse to not engage with community?
Are our translation services applied in the right places and the right way?
Are relationships suffering because there is nothing that can truly replace in-person engagement?
As communities and states reopen, how do we transition and synthesize the effective, efficient technological engagement strategies that have made such positive advancements with re-emerging in-person opportunities?
We hope we can all continue to challenge ourselves to “meet the community where they are” during this challenging time. With an intention of employing genuine engagement opportunities we can achieve quality policy, project and community deliberation. Technology can help advance this type of engagement if supported by decision makers and implemented well. We miss people… we want to see them again… and when we can do so safely, we will be ready to do so with a renewed appreciation for in-person relationship building and a refined, improved approach to how we do this important work virtually.
One of the most fun parts of our job is brainstorming creative ways to engage the community on a project that might have otherwise gotten lost in the shuffle. As part of the Thornton Comprehensive Planning Project, great partners and clients allowed us to do just that – consider unique opportunities to engage the community and “meet them where they are.” This inclusive engagement approach meant attending Thornton’s ice cream socials throughout the Summer, meeting neighbors and community members at their local clubhouses, presenting in high school classrooms, and even bringing baby goats to events to grab attention. Yes, you heard that right, baby goats! You have got to be kidding me!
Throughout the project, CDR worked with local farms to bring baby goats to Thornton Fest and Harvest Fest hosted by the City. The goats hung out in a pen and enjoyed attention from the youngest community members while parents and interested spectators filled out surveys and posted on boards about their vision for the City which informed the development of the draft Comprehensive Plan. As a result of this robust and unique engagement, the project was awarded a 2019 APA Colorado Merit Award in the category of Community Engagement! We were honored to work with partners Cultivando, Clarion, and the City of Thornton on this project and receive this exciting award.
Strategic Communication, Agency Coordination, and Public Involvement to create local solutions for a regional corridor.
What’s 42 miles? Well, it’s the length of CO 52 from CO 119 in Boulder County to CO 79 in Weld County. Google says if I drive it, right now, it’ll take me 52 minutes (as an aside: if, for some reason, I walk it, it’ll take 13 hours and 40 minutes). That’s a long corridor.
But, what’s interesting about this corridor doesn’t end at its length. This corridor also houses big, urban communities like Erie and small, agricultural communities like Kennesburg. The main streets of small towns such as Dacono, Frederick, and Fort Lupton host myriad family businesses, while the IBM campus sits at the western end, at CO 119 and CO 52. Boulder and Weld Counties both have their unique values and priorities – for their economies, their residents, and mobility. The corridor is a major connector bringing travelers, freight, and even data north to Fort Collins, south to Denver, and west to the City of Boulder.
This is all to say — this is a long, important corridor with lots of divergences in its stakeholders, interests, challenges, and goals. As part of the recently launched CO 52 PEL / ACP (Planning and Environmental Linkages Study / Access Control Plan) CDR is charged with finding ways to allow for local uses and identity of the corridor and to develop a cohesive corridor vision and plan. Adding to the challenge of the corridor’s unique complexity, we’re now finding ways to maintain our original schedule and stakeholder engagement effectiveness through Covid. To do all of this, we’ve developed a plan that includes strategic communication, agency coordination, and public involvement that’s tailored to each stakeholder’s preferred method to engage. We’re using formal stakeholder groups. We’re using interactive mapping for members of the public to learn about the study and provide content at their convenience. We’re translating materials into Spanish. We’re working closely with local jurisdictions to plug into their virtual and traditional (aka – analogue) communication platforms. Our commitment on this study is to first ensure that we effectively engage the broad spectrum of stakeholders and, second, that their interests are linked to decisions so that the final plan manages to be both local and regional.
To learn more about strategic communication and public involvement using interactive mapping, contact Jeffrey Range at firstname.lastname@example.org.