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Suddenly find yourself needing to take that meeting online?

Three leading researchers share their tips for successful virtual workshops and create an online community that promotes sustainable and resilient ecosystems throughout Canada.

With Corona Virus (COVID-19) on everyone’s mind and social distancing becoming increasingly fashionable, many of us are finding ourselves trying to figure out how to move our meetings, workshops, and small conferences online. A few months ago, we held our new network’s kickoff meeting online, and so we are lucky to have experience and a few tips to share in case you should choose to do the same, for whatever reason.

Our meeting, the first gathering of ResNet, a new 5-year, pan-Canadian research network on environmental management, was held online in part due to our interest in reducing the environmental impact of our environmental research. So we decided, rather than flying fifty people to Montreal for one day, we would hold an online kickoff to build our community, ignite people’s excitement for the project, and at the same time, set the tone for an environmentally-conscious network.  We avoided 31,000 flight miles, developed a sense of pride in our accomplishment, and had a great kickoff to boot! It was a rewarding adventure with many lessons learned, which we want to share with you. 

Like all research, our work is highly internationalized: we regularly move across and to new continents for our work, do fieldwork in faraway places, and meet peers at conferences all over the world. Indeed, travel is often considered one of the perks of the job! As a consequence, researchers often have a high carbon footprint which is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by their consumption and is mainly driven by travel. This has triggered a growing movement in research of flying less or not at all.

Map of Canda highlighting Montreal
Map of Canada | Photo courtesy of authors

It's easy to place the responsibility for reducing travel-related carbon emissions on the individual. There are abundant ideas for how to do so: virtual participation, fewer conferences, work via online platforms, or travel by alternate means. While many examples of individual action exist, there are few concrete examples of how to change the default in research, particularly research networks. Networks inherently mean coming together, which is typically associated with travel. So how could our ResNet network be successfully have participants working well together from all corners of Canada while reducing traveling? 

We saw our opportunity to contribute to a new academic paradigm of encouraging climate friendly research with the kickoff meeting for our network, ResNet by conducting an online retreat rather than a classic in-person meeting. While planning, we looked for ‘how to’ documents for online retreats, but information was scarce. Our virtual retreat worked exceptionally well, and the participants are really proud of it, which helped reinforce our sense of community. Plus, now we know that we can have online meetings that achieve our goals.

To encourage more people to experiment with online meetings, we’ll share some lessons we learned about how to make this work:

Top tips for successful virtual workshops Image
Content courtesy of authors.

Allow social interaction
In-person meetings often feature coffee before the meeting starts and an opportunity to mingle afterwards. Planning this into an online meeting agenda gives people the opportunity to ‘arrive’, test their devices, and interact with each other on a personal level before business starts. We started this conversation asking people about the weather, like you would in an in-person meeting. 

Manage expectations
Communicate from the beginning (when announcing the online workshop) that this is an experiment: certain things will work well and others might be challenging. We even had a fire alarm at the hosts’ building during the meeting, but the group self-organized to continue seamlessly. Thinking proactively about potential problems and delegating responsibility so that others can step in if needed is useful.

Schedule breaks
It’s easy to get carried away in an interesting discussion. If it is clear from the beginning when breaks are to be held, people can plan accordingly, even across time zones. You can encourage people to have the break together (staying close to the computer if possible) to socialize.

One computer per person
Everyone should be in front of their own computer; no groups sitting together. This creates an equal playing field for everyone in terms of reacting to the ‘feel’ of the room. It is difficult if some people are reacting to in-person dynamics while others have only the online cues to work with. Discourage participants from phoning in only so there is a visual for everyone.

Weigh your technological options
There are lots of excellent software possibilities: pick one, test it, and make sure it works for all. Academics, government agencies, NGOs and corporations have different in-house security concerns and favor different online provides. We benefited from software that allows breakout groups for more interaction among participants.  We also hard-wired the host to an ethernet cable to avoid bandwidth issues.

Consider shorter meetings over multiple days
People get tired more quickly online than in in-person. The energy we gain from being physically present together doesn’t flow as well online. Keeping the agenda focused and short, or having two half-day meetings (rather than one long-day one) can help.

All or nothing
Encourage people to dive in completely. Be clear that online meetings are not the time for e-mails or other things on their computers. They can go back to those things in the breaks and during time they saved from not having to travel!

Overcome online divides
When energy levels are low, ask people to do an energizer, just as you would in an in-person meeting. For example, ask everyone to stand up and stretch! People might feel strange at first, but feeling silly together can also create community.

The climate crisis can feel overwhelming, as does the thought that we need to change our whole lives in response. But ‘walking the walk’ in sustainability research is a crucial step forward. We simply cannot afford to keep talking about and studying climate change, while not acting on what we know. We know that ResNet scientists will continue to fly for field work and conferences, and we will plan annual in-person meetings. But our online kickoff had many benefits: we reduced carbon emissions, and benefited personally as well: participants could spend the evening with family and friends, parents could pick up kids from school, and everybody could sleep in their own beds that night. Alongside these personal benefits, we shared ideas, brainstormed, and created and strengthened relationships that are at the heart of our network. That’s a win for the climate and a win for our new network.


About the Authors

Headshot of a smiling woman with brown hair and glasses

Klara J. Winkler is the Deputy Science Director of the NSERC Strategic Network ResNet at McGill University. She is a sustainability scientist researching how we can design policies and governance mechanisms that better reflect people’s values and their relationships with rural landscapes. Her interest is to actively contribute to a more sustainable research lifestyle by showing alternatives to the status quo.

Smiling woman kneeling in a field of tall grass

Merritt Turetsky is the Director of INSTAAR and Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. She uses her expertise is in ecosystem structure and function of northern ecosystems to train the next generation of scientists in the interdisciplinary skills required to tackle ongoing and important challenges in the north.

Head shot of a smiling woman with curly brown hair

Elena Bennett is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Science at McGill University. She is a systems ecologist who works on improving our understanding of multiple ecosystem services in working landscapes so we can do a better job of managing these critically important landscapes for resilience and sustainability. 


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