Use asynchronous and remote engagement to offer flexibility and choice:
Remote and synchronous engagement (for example, video conferencing and phone calls) offer participants more flexibility to attend sessions due to reduced travel requirements and increased ability to negotiate schedules. However, this also relies on the flexibility of the facilitator and their ability to dialogue with participants in advance and adapt activities to meet individual needs. Remote and asynchronous engagement (for example, physical workbooks and shared digital spaces like Miro or Google Docs), enables people to participate in their own time, which is more accessible for those with scheduling commitments during traditional working hours (such as caring responsibilities).
Accessibility requires designing forms of engagement that meet participants’ individual needs. As accessibility needs can greatly vary however, an engagement approach or method designed for one person may be less accessible for another. The attributes and benefits of distributed engagement include providing extended time for people to engage asynchronously; providing flexibility to engage around individual time commitments; and being able to tailor approaches. This can be described as ‘meeting people on their own terms’ or becoming ‘participant-centred’. Time should be factored in to mediate potential barriers to participation. The individualised nature of accessibility requirements means that to design for everyone requires plurality and the creation of multiple options (for example, running multiple sessions in different formats, having varying levels of participation within the same activity, or providing different variety in methods and resources for participants to choose from). Tailored remote and asynchronous engagement approaches can also provide participants with more time to prepare, digest information and contribute their thoughts and ideas (which is not always afforded in synchronous online engagement).
Shifting perceptions around ‘communities of place’:
Asynchronous and distributed engagement has brought people from diverse geographical areas together in novel ways. This could be shaping how we (re)consider communities and who we recruit for participation; rethinking recruitment frameworks and our definitions of ‘place’ altogether. Cultural biases and assumptions could still be preventing truly broad inclusion despite increased remote access for distributed geographical locations. For example, this might involve excluding people from rural or remote locations due to historic low awareness and limited access to appropriate recruitment networks. This poses the questions around what support is needed to involve new and diverse audiences and how do we ethically search for the previously unknown? With this comes a need for increased sensitivities when bringing together multi-cultural and multi-locational perspectives. Additionally, as perspectives have been shifted to distributed communities, it is important not to completely replace place-based audiences and local engagement that benefits from on-the-ground and co-located methods.
Embedding principles of hospitality within virtual engagement:
Hospitality principles, typically adopted for in-person participatory events, have also been applied during virtual engagement to emulate safe, comfortable, and welcoming online environments. In some cases, this has involved creating a ‘group charter’ to establish boundaries and recreate the benefits of co-located engagement, such as posting refreshments out to participants alongside paper-based welcome packs. In other cases, facilitators have attempted to recreate literal representations of physical places within a digital platform. There are opportunities to further question what a comfortable digital or hybrid space looks and feels like, and invite health and wellbeing experts to explore this alongside participatory practitioners.
Engaging from home creates new ethical considerations:
There is a need to recognise that not everyone’s home space is as safe, comfortable, or appropriate to work from as others, and often it is unclear what additional responsibilities or constraints this creates for participants (for example, if a participant is caring for someone at home or experiencing mental health difficulties). It is important to recognise that not everyone has had the same experience of distributed engagement throughout the course of the pandemic or previous to that. This includes their cultural and technical experience, and introduction to digital tools or etiquette. Acknowledging the discomfort of the pandemic as a context and recognising this as a new way of working is recommended to create safe spaces that foster empathy and human connection.
More time needs to be offered to get people ‘on the same page’:
When engaging digitally, participants may have varying levels of experience and knowledge. This means that more time should be factored in at the start for participants to set-up and become familiar with any new digital tools and resources and be supported with any project ‘onboarding’ or upskilling processes. However this must be balanced with people’s desire and capacity to participate digitally. Capacity-building, when sought, is best delivered through extended and slow engagement over longer periods of time with attention paid to the participants’ desired pace.
Fostering dialogue, deliberation and feedback within engagement:
To ensure facilitators of distributed synchronous engagement do not become digital gatekeepers, methods that combat the mono-directional nature of video conferencing conversations should be developed. This can include using breakout rooms and parallel asynchronous tools to allow participants to engage at their own pace and support multiple diverse conversations simultaneously. Regardless of the methods used, some participants feel less able to speak openly via digital platforms than in physical environments and this should be recognised and addressed to ensure equal representation. Facilitators using synchronous digital platforms such as video conferencing tools often struggle to ‘read the room’ or assess the live needs of participants due to ‘digital silence’: when cameras and mics are turned off and participant feedback is not recognised. This can make it particularly difficult for facilitators to know the level of engagement that is being achieved and adapt to people’s needs in-the-moment.