New ways to create connection in challenging times

By Louise Pulford 

SIX is known for our face to face gatherings bringing people together from across the globe. Like many organisations, we were forced to pivot to online activities in 2020 and we learnt a lot. 

Whilst we of course pay attention to the technical basics that make for a productive online meeting – getting time zones right, being clear on the purpose, providing a good facilitator, considering the group size and getting the right people in the room, smooth tech etc, the most important thing for SIX in our online shift was the human part of bringing people together virtually. How can we build and sustain relationships online?

We’ve spent a year prototyping lots of different styles of activities – all focussed on creating personal connections and exchange, at the same time as sharing tools and information. We’ve experimented with time and frequency, audience sizes and people combinations, depending on the purpose of each event. Below are a few of the things we’ve been doing:

  • Pair walks: Learning exchanges for facilitators, convenors and learning staff – We’ve developed a partnership with a global foundation where our teams regularly connect to exchange practices and tools. Change is happening so quickly around us, we are all trying new ways of doing things and learning on the go, so making space for convenors to learn from each other has been really valuable. Sometimes we take these calls on zoom, other times we take them walking the streets in our respective cities. These exchanges are carefully designed and facilitated to make sure they are not just random rambling, but by creating a space for learning, we often come up with new ideas and follow up with specifics for future direction.
  • SIX chats: Connecting like-minded peers with no agenda, other than building relationships – we don’t usually recommend having meetings with no agenda, but if the people are carefully selected, and there is enough trust, and someone experienced enough to hold the space well, a nice chat has become very important in a year where we had no serendipitous interactions or informality. The trick to making this work is being clear from the beginning that there is no agenda, matching the people well, and inviting them into a space where they can drop ego and expectations. Over 2020, we matched dozens of friends of SIX who we think have something in common, or we reconnected with people who haven’t seen each other for some time. We introduced them carefully, explained why we were doing this and invited a couple of people from different parts of the world for a 60-minute chat. Our only job is to set the scene and keep time. Conversations often started with personal things (how we are coping in our corner of the world), and then led on to anything from religion, to democracy, anthropology, activism, …. Everyone who participated told us how valuable these interactions were – a welcome chance to step away from the day to day and connect on a human level about the things that matter at this moment. 
  • Playing with intensity: Stretching our study tours to make them global and more accessible – whilst the experience of being away on a study tour, in another country or city with a group of people you work with can create strong, intense relationships and leave participants inspired, they aren’t necessarily the best way to embed learning into everyday work (and they are extremely costly to organise). We were due to host a group of Hong Kong social workers in London last year. We’d planned to take them to visit a group of interesting organisations (all within a 5-mile radius of our London office to avoid spending time in traffic). Due to Covid, we moved the study tour online, which meant that we could widen the pool of interesting organisations to meet and introduce some of the best global examples. We also extended the sessions over several months, embedding the learning in the everyday work of the participants.
  • Connecting over food (in your own time and language, on your own terms) – Whilst for most of us meeting in person wasn’t an option, our Wayfinder dine arounds encouraged small groups to meet over breakfast, lunch or dinner depending on the time of day. We provided a structure for the conversation and encouraged people to meet where food was the focus, not the computer screen. Hosting conversations where the focus is not on the screen, but rather food changes the way people interact with each other.
  • Experimenting with audio, poetry, art and different mediums – As part of the Wayfinder programme, we invited six Artist-Composers in Residence to work with us to communicate our findings from the Wayfinder in a way that was different to an average post-event report. We developed films, podcasts, meditations, poetry and music. The whole 2020 Wayfinder was guided by a musical metaphor (we created a metaphorical symphony in four parts (Tuning in, Ensembling, Playing, and the Moment of Magic), and by the end of nine months, the symphony became real in the form of a 25-minute piece of original music). Much has been written recently about the value of audio in creating connections at a time when we are all suffering from information overload and too much screen time. In our experience, music connects people on another level.

Moving forward
As things start to go back to ‘normal’ (or a version of that depending on where you are in the world) – there is going to be an irreversible shift towards more online meetings. Below are a few things which we think are important to keep front of mind as we move into a new, more hybrid work environment over the next few years:

  • Start with purpose, not tools – we always start by looking at why we connect people/doing the activity in the first place, then we look at the tools available to us to make that happen. Sometimes a miro board is necessary, but other times, all we need is to take a walk, or draw something. On some occasions, face to face will be important and zoom just won’t cut it, but other times doing something virtual means more equality of access (people who may not be able to fly around the world can participate).
  • Embed creativity, not use it as an add on/gimmick – Art and music have real power to help people connect on another level (see SIX Wayfinder) so don’t waste the opportunity it brings. By working with the Artist-Composers, and our incredible design team, we were able to embed different mediums of connecting across our whole programme and link it directly to the insights and the people.
  • Replicate shared experiences – This is one of the hardest things to do online – nothing replaces the bus breaking down, or a walk with someone through a new city, but there are things we can do to create shared sensory experiences. As we all spent more time working at home, our personal and professional lives began to mix, we took advantage of getting to know each other in different ways. We incorporated many of the team’s personal practices into our activities – authentic relating, yoga, poetry, karate – and invited people to share details about their surroundings to create shared contexts – be that building work, or kids!
  • Focus on the relational not transactional – Most of this works because of the relationships we have with people and the combinations of connections. Just as in-person, online relationships take time to build, but it is not impossible. The 6 Artist-Composers we brought together for the Wayfinder created a really special and sustainable bond, despite being from 6 different countries across 5 different time zones.

All of the above was borne out of SIX’s convening (and operating) style which is based on intuition – many of the activities over the last year haven’t come from a manual or guide, we created them in response to the needs we saw, always guided by a combination of the needs of the people we are working with, the SIX team’s skills and grounded in our organisational values. What these activities and approaches look like for other organisations will likely be different, but we all need to continue to support and learn from and with each other as we face more challenging times ahead. We will all need to flex in times of change and uncertainty and SIX will continue to create, adapt and deliver.