What’s Next? Transitioning from all-virtual forum meetings to the new “normal”

Our forums have been meeting virtually for months now.  We’re gotten used to Zoom. We’ve adjusted our meeting frequency, length and agenda to accommodate the opportunities and challenges of this new format. Now we are beginning to ask: What’s next?  Are we ever going back to the old “normal” of monthly meetings, 3-4 hours in length, and always in person; or will there be a new “normal” for our forum?

How and when will we have our first in-person meeting?

People are hungering for in-person gatherings, but still many are afraid.  Given these mixed emotions, it’s important to clarify upfront the lowest common denominator of safety requirements so that people are feeling their safety will be respected should they decide to meet in person. Specific dimensions to consider include:

  • Should we start with a shorter meeting, perhaps two hours long, to begin getting comfortable with the idea?
  • What venue is acceptable?  Outdoors, in the backyard of a member’s home; or inside in a room that is large enough for socially distant seating? How will members be assured that great care is taken in all areas of hygiene?
  • If the plan is to meet outside, but it starts raining, will we end the meeting and go home?  If we scramble and run indoors, will that lead to someone’s discomfort?
  • Will everyone always wear masks or only when social distancing is not possible?
  • Do we bring our own food/drinks to minimize close-up contact, or will we take turns going to grab a drink or snack so as not to crowd anyone?
  • Should we provide a Zoom back-up option in case the weather doesn’t cooperate, or if the forum decides to revert to a virtual format due to last-minute changes in the health status of individual members or surging local virus rates?

What if some members are not ready or able to meet in-person?

It’s generally considered best practice for everyone to be in the same room, or for all to be virtual. That way, all members participate with equal standing.

However, your forum may reach a point where all except one or two members are willing to try an in-person meeting. We listen carefully and respect the needs of all members.  Perhaps some have their own compromised health situations or are caring for family members who need to be protected.

With the blessing of those who choose to stay virtual, the forum may gather in person with one or two members still on Zoom.  Each remote participant gets their own separate laptop/screen. If using Zoom, pin the video for one remote user on each computer.  Put the computers at different places around the room to give remote participants the best possible view of everyone who is physically present.  Follow these best practices for the optimal experience.

What if some members are no longer in your local area?

COVID has disrupted everyone’s lives and some members may have relocated during the pandemic.  As long as all meetings are virtual, it doesn’t matter.  We don’t care where you are calling from, as long as you continue to participate reliably.

If your forum resumes in-person meetings, those who are temporarily out of the area can continue to participate via Zoom, if the forum allows that.  Those who have relocated for a longer, indeterminate period present a bigger challenge.  They may also continue to participate virtually for an agreed number of months, while they seek to join another forum; they may take a sabbatical; or they may resign, with our deep appreciation for their time in the forum.

Longer term, would a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings work best for our forum?

Some forums, now comfortable with virtual meetings, may experiment with a mixed mode of sometimes all-together, and sometimes on Zoom.  The frequency, length and format of meetings will vary depending on multiple factors:

  • The number of members who are no longer in the local area, but who can return occasionally
  • Commuting times to get to meetings or frequency of member travel out of the area
  • Planned agendas, with some topics working well remotely and others better addressed in-person

We’re all figuring this out as we go, and open, honest conversation and respectful listening will help get us through this transition.

Thank you to Mo Fathelbab and Roni Witkin for their suggestions regarding this blog post.  All opinions are my own.

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