Leave no one behind

How to make sure that no one is left behind in the transition to virtual collaboration?

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The challenge

With external circumstances like the corona pandemic forcing us to re-think how we interact, plan and implement our cooperation and capacity development activities and increasingly transition from face-to-face to virtual means, we also have to re-think how to achieve the objective of leaving no one behind in these activities.

There are a number of reasons why partners or individuals might not be able to make the transition from face-to-face meetings to virtual interaction. One reason relates to technical capacities and availability of reliable hardware and software solutions as well as access to reliable internet. Another dimension is the technical literacy, comfort and confidence with the use of virtual formats and tools, which also influences the readiness to use them. Finally, another reason could be that some partners are not allowed to interact virtually with others at all.

In some cases the shift to virtual meetings can also have positive effects concerning inclusion, e.g. the possibility to include people who live in remote areas in events that would normally take place in the capital, or the possibility to include the rank-and-file experts who do not speak English or do not have a high position, and who maybe would not normally be invited to international meetings.

The experience of the last months has shown that many of our partners have some access to IT hardware and that they are able to take part in videoconferences and use online interaction tools. However, some have to use their own personal devices, and some have limitations in the performance of their devices.

The solution

A first step to solving some of the above issues could be to provide partners with some guidelines on necessary technical setups and hardware specifications that will fulfil the requirements for use of videoconferencing tools. Additionally, projects could provide partners with a reliable hardware setup, if that is possible and necessary.

For most partners, the best way to interact is when the videoconferencing tool and other virtual collaboration tools are provided by PTB and most importantly, no software licenses need to be purchased by the partners. The easiest to access are tools that are accessible via browsers. Others might require downloading a software client but provide more security. It is preferable to settle on one tool or a set of tools that is used throughout the project. In this way, the partners can get used to the tool and get more confident in its application. The choice of tool(s) can be made jointly with the partner(s); for example, in the frame of a session during which different tools are presented and tested together, to check which one functions best for the people involved.

A challenge that we experienced in many of the virtual meetings is the access and reliability to the internet. If the LAN/ethernet connection has the required bandwidth, this should be the preferred option to wireless LAN, but often the LAN is not sufficient and reliable enough. In this case, a simple telephone connection or a meeting without video might be more easily accessible than a videoconference, where substantial data volume will be spent. Partners tend to use mobile devices with access to mobile internet. This limits their capacity to run different programs in parallel, e.g. a video conference plus PPT presentation plus whiteboard plus external polling. An open question for development cooperation is whether projects should purchase internet packages for partners or individuals potentially as a substitute for covering costs for participation in face-to-face meetings.

In general, the readiness of partners to use virtual tools is high. However, the literacy, comfort and confidence to use videoconferencing and other collaboration tools differ, especially with more complex tools. Partners that have not used certain tools can benefit from short training sessions in smaller groups to use these tools before the meeting. It is also helpful to introduce the use of interactive survey tools or virtual whiteboards by including exercises into the workshop, whose complexity increases step by step. Breakout sessions for more and less advanced users with differing tasks can develop these skills. The focus needs to be on giving all participants a chance to get used to some tools, instead of trying to be innovative all the time.

Another issue is how to communicate the time of meetings if participants come from different time zones. It works best to share a document that includes the local meeting times for each participant.


Corinna Weigelt

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