COVID-19 changing the way we engage in 2020…and beyond.

Cartoon people with speech bubbles overhead

With Nathan Connors, IAP2 Australasia Director

Having joined the IAP2A board in late 2019, I could never have imagined my first year with the organisation would have been overshadowed by such a life-changing event as the global COVID-19 pandemic.

It was only a matter of weeks after attending the Board strategic planning day in February 2020 that Melbourne and other parts of Australia and New Zealand were ‘shut-down’ as the scramble to contain the virus began.

Never could I have imagined that routine would be shattered so rapidly and that the world around me could so quickly face suffering, fear and anxiety in the pandemics wake.

Not only that, but it would also be the first-time in my life where I’ve experienced the full power of government-mandated restriction on citizens.

We weren’t allowed to travel 5kms from home, our children were teaching themselves maths on computers in their bedrooms, no physical social contact was allowed, I had to wear (and still do) a stinky mask and Friday beers at the pub were off the menu.

And, with the restrictions, life changed forever. And, perhaps-so, in some ways, elements of community and stakeholder engagement practice with it.

 In this article I consider three ways I think community engagement has changed forever since the pandemic.

1. All of a sudden everyone is an online facilitator

While nothing beats the experience of being taken through an expertly facilitated engagement workshop with a seasoned professional, it’s hard to ignore just how easy it has become to learn and deliver facilitated digital engagement workshops online

Platforms such as Google Jamboard, Zoom and Miro have completely democratised digital facilitation and expert templates and instructions from agencies and practitioners, like those found on the Miroverse, mean it’s easier than ever to go from blank canvas to ideas jam or design sprint in a matter of minutes.

Digital workshop tools have become a part of our lives, they allow us to connect with people over great distances, are interactive, safe (free from viruses) and can easily be recorded and documented, exported, manipulated and analysed at later times.

Whether it be breakout rooms for digital workshops, infinite whiteboards or digital stickie notes, tools that enable online facilitation have changed the engagement game forever.

2. Engagement has become even more of a fight for eyeballs and people’s quality time

During the pandemic it’s fair to say I smashed some Netflix, went deep into YouTube holes (had to learn how to make the sourdough) and perused all manner of news and journals. When I wasn’t engrossed in digital content, I was out in my community at the park attempting to close the rings on my Apple Watch.

With such a jam-packed schedule of digital media consumption and app-based gamified outside activities, it became very clear to me that the work we do in engagement is absolutely a fight for eyeballs and peoples time and the competition has never been so ferocious. In many ways, when you think about it, our main competitors are the big media companies and social media giants.

To this end, if we are to successfully capture people’s attention with opportunities for engagement or to keep our communities informed about changes and initiatives which might affect them, we need to revisit our advertising and content strategies and find new (or old) methods of getting eyeballs.

Already we have seen the resurgence of SMS as an outreach and engagement tool, engaging video content has become more important than ever and mobile-first experiences are even more engrained as the norm. (How many of you watch TV while using your phone on the couch at the same time?) Even the good-old QR code on physical signage has made a resurgence.

The new norm definitely requires us to invest more in engaging content and technologies which help us reach more people, capture attention and invite people into meaningful dialogue.

3. People have much higher expectations of being part of decision making

 As I watched businesses close and all manner of people being displaced from their jobs or normal lifestyles, the nightly newsreel became full of stories of people who had not been engaged in government decision making.

Whether it was the café owner in the CBD who was blindsided by forced closures or uncertainty about reopening, university staff being stood down and confused about which government support would be available, or absolute chaotic decision making in relation to quarantine, travel and business certainty, the story was the same, “there has been no engagement!”

I believe peoples experience of this pandemic and the role the government has played in forced decision making, has had a huge impact on the expectations of people when it comes to engagement. Engagement practice has never been more important. People expect it. They want it and no longer can you get away with it if you ignore it.

It’s so great to see IAP2A continuing to advocate strongly for engagement, adapt and change rapidly and absolutely leading the practice. The work done by the organisation will leave lasting effects on our society and I must give a massive shoutout to all the members who have continued to learn, grow and support the IAP2 community during what was a crazy 2020.

Nathan Connors,
IAP2 Australasia Director