Rewind back to two years ago, if a colleague had said to me ‘hey we’re not going to do any face-to-face engagement for the next 2 years but you’re still going to achieve great outcomes for communities’ I would have thought they might have had a bad banh mi for lunch and were suffering the effects of some serious food poisoning.
Fast forward almost two years and as a community engagement specialist, I can count on one hand how many face-to-face engagement sessions I’ve run; one. Except it wasn’t an open invite pop-up session, it was a targeted door knock. This included: social distancing, masks, and hand sanitiser between each visit and the ominous opening line:
“Hi I’m Lucy, do you currently have any symptoms similar to COVID-19 including a runny nose, cough, or fever?”
In March 2020, there was so much uncertainty about COVID-19. What are the effects of the virus, how is it transmitted, what happens if I get it? The cases began rapidly spreading throughout Melbourne, Victoria. There were immediate calls for workers who could work from home to do so. For many, including myself, this meant that when I left the office on Friday afternoon in early March, I wouldn’t return for the remainder of the year and largely all of 2021. The flow-on effects of the pandemic meant that society, as we know it, stopped overnight. Restrictions were put in place with the aim of reducing the spread of the virus. Gatherings were cancelled, weddings, funerals, nursing home visits, community sports, indoor retail, indoor hospitality, and major sporting events were rescheduled. Schools were transferred to remote learning and life suddenly changed. Abruptly, all industries had to adapt to remote working, learning and business, with IT workers in demand to enable this large-scale change to happen overnight.
Every single industry in Victoria has been affected, however large-scale critical infrastructure projects such as hospitals and road upgrades have continued with reduced workers. For community and stakeholder engagement, it was a sudden shift to exploring and utilising various digital engagement channels to ensure programs and projects could continue with local involvement. Personally, the restrictions and social isolation meant we had to turn to digital channels to socialise with friends and family. Friday night zoom calls with trivia and wine became the norm, weekend video calls to talk about sport, and lots of phone calls were also a recurring theme.
Professionally, every single meeting was now held via video call or telephone. It felt like we became attached to our screens in all facets of our lives, trying to remain connected. Community engagement had to overcome this challenge of beating ‘zoom fatigue.’ There was a low grumble whenever somebody suggested another zoom meeting or catch up, with the dreaded thought of being trapped on another zoom call staring into your colleagues’ eyes, with nowhere else to look!
I’m proud to say I’ve developed an engagement program where we were able to provide an online platform with direct access to the decision-makers and project team, whilst also supporting a local business that has been doing it extremely tough for the better part of two years. The first phase of engagement was designed to better understand how the community uses the space. We had to pivot our planned face-to-face engagement activities to virtual events with less than four days’ notice, due to changing public gathering limits. I analysed over 200 survey results and compiled an engagement report to help inform the design concepts.
During phase two engagement, we geo-targeted social media advertising ‘coffee and chat sessions’ to communities we wanted to reach and provided a coffee voucher to a local café if you registered and attended the online information session. This proved to be a great success with many people commenting on the smile the coffee brought to their faces, even though we couldn’t host the session in the actual café. I engaged a genie to undertake a virtual site tour with a local primary school to encourage children to talk about the project with their families, promoting the involvement and participation of young people in our survey. We received over 300 responses, with the community voting for their preferred design concept for the project.
With restrictions likely to be in place for the short-term future, I wonder, are the days of a free reign pop-up session over in Melbourne?
One thing is for certain, digital engagement is here to stay. It will no longer be the supplementary engagement channels and ‘tick the box’ exercise – but rather an opportunity to reach the community and stakeholders who may have previously never been able to be involved.
See you in the next zoom meeting.