And with the onset of strict social distancing measures at the end of March 2020, we have indeed moved rapidly to not only change the way we live (Australians adhered to social distancing measures 90% of the time according to modelling by the University of Sydney) but to reprogram the way we communicate and work with each other.
Consequently, the use of video conferencing and online collaborative applications surged in March and April. Video conferencing tool Zoom reported daily participants had increased from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million by the end of April 2020. Collaboration platform Microsoft Teams increased usage by 70% in the six weeks leading up to the end of April, with 75 million daily active users reported. Skype’s daily active users were up 70% to 40 million. (Source: VentureBeat).
With the switch flipped on online communications, the WSP Elton Consulting team also refocused its community and stakeholder engagement offering for the digital world, delivering many online activities for clients in the past eight weeks.
Elton Consulting, a WSP company since November 2019, has been providing professional advisory services including communications and engagement, urban and regional planning, social sustainability and design for more than 30 years. Our combined strengths allow us to provide comprehensive consulting solutions to government, private and community sectors.
What will be the new normal?
As Australia’s social distancing measures are relaxed further in the coming months and life gets back to normal - what will the new normal be when it comes to community and stakeholder engagement?
According to Elton Consulting Project Director Calli Brown, who led the organisation’s digital pivot this year, “Online engagement is here to stay.”
Calli explained that while webinars and online surveys have been happening in the background for the last five years, it is more likely now to become a regular part of the engagement mix, even when social distancing is relaxed.
“Because we’ve all been forced into choosing online engagement, and because there are no other options, people are taking it up,” she said.
“The lack of confidence beforehand – it’s significantly diminished due to circumstances – and those that have embraced online engagement with us, have experienced excellent outcomes.”
Elton Consulting Associate Director Martin Klopper agreed saying that the results achieved in online engagement activities during since March were in some cases better than traditional face-to-face engagement.
He pointed to an online town-hall meeting the firm facilitated for an infrastructure project in inner-city Brisbane. The online session attracted five times more people than previous in-person town hall meetings for the same project.
“People liked that they didn’t lose their whole evening. You can have your dinner cooking in the background. It’s useful for really busy corporate people in the urban context because it provides them with options.
“That client is now saying that it is their preference to do engagement in this way moving forward.”
What about regional engagement?
It’s not only busy inner-city professionals who are likely to sign up to online engagement activities. Communities in regional areas of the Northern Territory were quick to log on during the fourth round of engagement on planning reforms run by Elton Consulting in April 2020.
The previous stages included face-to-face workshops with stakeholders in remote communities of Katherine and Alice Springs. For the April round, Martin and other urban planning specialists delivered eight online workshops for a range of audiences including architects and community members.
“There are significant benefits of online program delivery for regional areas, like in the Northern Territory. Because it is so big and sparsely populated, the time and cost of travelling is not always worthwhile,” said Martin.
In addition to convenience and cost savings on travel, the added functionality of video conferencing platforms which offer online breakout rooms, chat streams, private messages and live polling, add another dimension to the inputs received.
“When it comes to urban and regional planning, it can be hard to capture quantifiable feedback,” said Martin. “For the community online session for the Northern Territory planning reforms, we ran several live polls, which would have been difficult to do during a face-to-face workshop.
“But because people are engaged online, it’s easier to run online polls like this, and the result is you get richer information.
“Another benefit was that participants could submit questions through chat and there is functionality to raise your hand, which doesn’t break the flow of the presentation or ongoing discussion. Questions can be submitted in a very transparent and inclusive way and then dealt with at the appropriate time in the conversation.
“We also allowed private questions. Attendees were able to ask a question directly to the host, anonymously, and then we could address this with the group. This was good for quieter personalities and we can see it being useful for contentious issues or facilitation.”
Connectivity, confidence and security are key
Access to stable and fast internet is critical before undertaking online engagement, particularly for communities in regional areas.
Similarly, there were concerns around privacy and wariness of the online format in general from clients.
“Until they’ve done a session, some clients are concerned that online engagement won’t give the community as much opportunity to be involved,” added Martin.
“We worked very closely with our clients to help them feel comfortable, and they felt a lot more satisfied and confident following the practice session.
“In addition, the way we ran the sessions changed to keep people’s attention. We delivered the presentation in smaller sections and then had a break with feedback, questions and interactive elements to maintain people’s attention before continuing.”
Calli Brown added that, “Preparation, testing and rehearsals with clients was key. When you’ve done the hard-work, it increases your confidence for when the session goes live.”