Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: The Caffè Is Open, the Learning Continues

May 1, 2020

I engaged in what I’m going to call a “not-so-guilty pleasure” this morning: I joined approximately 30 colleagues for coffee and conversation in an intimate, wonderfully welcoming caffè while attempting to follow shelter-in-place guidelines which remain in effect for many of us in response to the coronavirus pandemic and which may last for at least another month. I have to admit that I had begun to forget the pleasures of walking into a coffee shop that serves as a community meeting place—Ray Oldenburg’s Third Place. Hearing inviting music in the background. Looking around to see familiar faces. Grabbing a cup of coffee. Sitting face-to-face with inspiring friends/colleagues who form the heart and soul of a tremendous community of learning. And discovering, once again, the hidden gems that/who are within that community, just waiting to be discovered.

We met. We talked. We laughed. We learned. And we adhered to the best, most stringent social-distancing practices possible. Because writer-trainer-presenter Joshua Fredenburg, the person at the center of that “Virtual TD [Training & Development] Talks” gathering of ATD [Association for Talent Development] South Florida Chapter members, created the feeling of a face-to-face caffè gathering online through a combination of creative use of Zoom, his first-rate presentation and facilitation skills, and his commitment to fostering a conversation rather than placing himself at the center of a stage in a virtual learning space. This was a virtual caffè extending from South Florida all the way to where I was sitting, in San Francisco—a 3,000-mile wide caffè which managed to feel as small, intimate, and welcoming as any caffè, virtual or otherwise, that I have ever entered. We could see each other. We could hear each other. And we could even pass virtual notes under the virtual tables via the chat function within Zoom.

ATD South Florida Chapter leaders deserve a lot of credit here. For effectively and positively responding to shelter-in-place and the potential disruption of our community. For quickly and creatively organizing and hosting a dynamic, flexible, informal set of online gatherings. For providing ample opportunities for interactions, during these sessions, that create a sense of presence (telepresence) through brief (45-minute) online sessions. And for making us aware of the “hidden gems” like Fredenburg who routinely draw praise for the way they operate at the national level while those of us “at home” remain (tragically) unaware that we have people like that nearby—until our Chapter brings us together.

And presenters like Fredenburg deserve a lot of credit for creatively and positively exploiting the possibilities created by the online TD Virtual Talks format. When I logged into the online session this morning, I expected to be joining a presentation on and conversation about “Keeping Yourself and Team of Remote Workers Engaged & Productive During COVID-19.” And I certainly wasn’t disappointed; Fredenburg’s expertise and excitement about best practices in leadership was on display and fully engaging from start to finish. But, as so often happens, there was as much to learn from a colleague’s—Fredenburg’s—presentation/facilitation style as there was to learn from the content he was sharing.

Joining the session approximately 10 minutes before it was scheduled to formally begin—I always like getting my coffee and getting settled before caffè conversations, onsite or virtual, are fully underway—I was pleasantly surprised to see Fredenburg (whom I had not previously met) using a Zoom virtual background that made it appear that he was sitting in a wonderfully inviting coffee shop. (Presentation Tip #1: Provide plenty of surprises; they can help make a learning session more memorable/effective.) And I was particularly surprised to hear background music exactly as I would hear if I had been walking into a physical coffee shop. (Presentation Tip #2: Create an inviting learning space online as well as onsite; it adds to engagement and keeps us alert.) Fredenburg, who usually is suited up and ready to roll for his onsite presentations, was dressed casually—which, of course, added to the informal nature of the caffè conversation he was about to facilitate. (Presentation Tip #3: Details—e.g., what you are wearing, how you “set the space”—can help make or break an online as well as onsite session.) And he, like any good host, immediately reached out to me online with a warm welcome as I virtually entered the room. (Presentation Tip #4: Warm up the online room just as you would warm up an onsite room; create the sense of a virtual lounge or virtual gathering of colleagues around a water cooler to foster social learning.) He, the host (Chapter Director of TD Talks Selen Turner), and I immediately began chatting about how he had created that ambience—using a jury-rigged green screen that allowed him to incorporate the caffè background into his teaching-training-learning space, and having music from a YouTube video audible in the background. (Presentation Tip #5: Make every moment a learning moment—without making learning in any way seem like a chore. It’s all about being ready to engage learners in terms of what they want to learn as much as it’s about making sure you foster learning that the session is designed to nurture.)

There was plenty to learn and admire from the session. And much of it revolved around the way that Fredenburg treated everyone as co-conspirators in learning. The result was another spectacular example of turning-challenge-into-opportunity. Community members supporting community members in time of need. Colleagues supporting colleagues by simply doing what they/we do best: working with what we are given. Learning from each other. And remaining committed to, as ATD so often suggests, making a world that works better. Because we can. And because we will.

–N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Sheltering, Associating, and Thriving

April 17, 2020

One of the most stunningly impressive and inspiring displays of positive action coming out of the current sheltering in place efforts to fight the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic is the display of flexibility and adaptability I’ve seen in a variety of sectors—not the least of which is the training-teaching-learning environment that is so much a part of my life.

I’ve seen firsthand, written about, and talked extensively and been involved in discussions about the way in which the mostly-onsite ShapingEDU 2020 Unconference moved, overnight, into being a completely online gathering of dreamer-doer-drivers committed to help shape the future of learning in the digital age. I’ve been observing (through news articles, blog posts, participation in webinars, and personal conversations) how rapidly and radically administrators, teachers, and students are moving from onsite to online environments—sometimes successfully, sometimes painfully much less so—in attempts to avoid a complete shutdown of our formal education systems globally. And I continue to be impressed, fascinated, and supported by associations—those wonderful groups that even in the least challenging of times, bring us together—through a shared interest—to commiserate, learn, play, survive, and thrive together.

My colleagues in local ATD (Association for Talent Development) chapters as well as in the parent organization, for example, have turned the very bitter lemon of having to cancel onsite gatherings into an incredible pitcher of lemonade in the form of highly interactive, engaging, and productive online gatherings—what I have consistently referred to as “face-to-face sessions online.” It’s a fairly straightforward—and hardly new—approach that is becoming more and more easy to implement through the use of an increasingly varied array of teleconferencing tools designed to pull us as near as possible to a sense of telepresence—the perception that we are sharing a physical space, side-by-side, regardless of the actual physical distance between us.

It’s as if we had formally decided to counteract the frustrations of social distancing by engaging in an updated version of virtual proximity—and we are, increasingly, seeing this virtual proximity become widespread through necessity. The ATD South Florida Chapter, for example, reacted magnificently to shelter-in-place by proposing and implementing, in less than a month, a series of online weekly gatherings that have all the spirit and camaraderie of the long-standing onsite chapter meetings that are a staple of ATD chapters throughout the United States. When chapter leaders decided to experiment with this face-to-face online approach through the use of Zoom, they immediately put out a request for proposals from chapter members interested in being part of this initiative. I saw the first request, via email, on Friday, March 27, 2020. A week later, I was in the virtual audience for the first session, led by longtime colleague and chapter member Jennifer Dow, on the topic of “Engaging Your Audience While Facilitating Virtually.” Two weeks after receiving that email message, I was in the audience for the second session, led by chapter member George Romagosa, on the topic of “Quick and Easy MicroLearning.” And this morning—three weeks after seeing the initial request for proposals, I was leading a session centered on a few case studies of organizations that were making the switch from onsite to online operations almost—if not virtually—overnight.

As we look at how my colleagues in that first-rate, highly innovative, and very playful chapter managed to create this new series so quickly, we would do well to begin with a glance at the cordial, transparent, collegial manner in which they invited participation while also creating awareness of what was in the works. Under a banner containing a simple message—“Let’s support one another at this time”—they quickly drew us in: “ATDSFL remains focused on supporting your professional needs. During this time, we are seeking talent development professionals who would like to share best practices, tips and strategies in virtual training delivery. Small and large organizations alike may be struggling with how to transition quickly to online or virtual training and we would like to equip our members with the skills to tackle this challenge! Please contact the Director of TD Talks Selen Turner at selenturner@comcast.net if you are interested in being a virtual speaker.”

It’s all there, and completely reflective of the tenor of all interactions with ATD South Florida Chapter members: the statement of need, the proposed action to be taken, a clear statement of what is being sought, and guidance on how to respond.”

As a rare chapter member whose interactions are all virtual except for those rare times when I’m actually in Florida (rather than San Francisco or other parts of the country) for a project, I was intrigued. And as a prospective session facilitator, I was as impressed as I always am by the quick response I received to my initial proposal. This is what makes an association thrive. This is what makes an association be seen as the place to be. And this is an association that, through its collaborative approach to implementing its mission, vision, and value statements, is there for us—and we for it—in the best and the worst of times.

The parent organization, at its best, is every bit as creative and responsive as its chapters are; no surprise there. Faced, for example, with the difficult decision so many associations are currently having to make—to go ahead with planning for large conferences that are routinely held on an annual basis or cancel them in acknowledgment that gathering large numbers of people together during a time of pandemic—ATD recently announced that its annual gathering (as usual, scheduled for May) is being cancelled, and that the Association would look forward to gathering onsite next year for its five-day conference and exposition—presumably when health and safety issues had been overcome. But it didn’t stop there. Several days later, a follow-up note went out to the thousands of us around the world who belong to ATD: an invitation to attend an ATD 2020 Virtual Conference to be held a couple of weeks later than the onsite conference would have been held. It’s still very early in the process of disseminating information about what specific sessions will be held, but signs are already promising that our Association colleagues are doing everything possible to recreate, virtually, what is being lost through that onsite cancellation: dozens of formal learning opportunities; networking opportunities in group and one-on-one situations; and an opportunity to “be a part of ATD’s history as we come together for a new learning experience.”

I have often reflected on and written about the value of associations—and association! I’ve documented the high regard in which I hold colleagues in the American Library Association, ATD (initially in those years when it was still ASTD, the American Society for Training & Development), ShapingEDU, the New Media Consortium before financial difficulties led its board members to make the decision to dissolve the organization, T is for Training, and others. And I was inspired to do so again today after coming across a prompt from ATD on its Facebook page: “What does being a member of ATD mean to you?”

The answer flowed effortlessly, without requiring much thought: It means the world to me. ATD is a magnificent community of learning. A large laboratory/sandbox for exploring and engaging in lifelong learning. A source of support in the best of times and the most challenging of times. A meeting place. A testing ground for new ideas and a place to improve what we have already developed. A professional family. A state of mind. A place we can call home. And because it is so good at what it does, it helps define the word “association” in numerous, varied, nuanced ways.

So, there we are: association in all its glory, even in times requiring us to shelter in place…while still offering us opportunities to nurture proximity in all the important ways.

–N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


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