The COVID-19 pandemic has forced just about everyone to get creative and adapt — including the InterNations Team. Our Community Engagement Leads Miriam and Nichelle recount how their team rose to the challenge and introduced a brand-new kind of event that’s here to stay!
“There Was No Plan B”: How COVID-19 Changed Our Community Overnight
Ironically, it was on Friday 13 when everything changed for InterNations: for 3.9 million members around the globe, for 7,000 InterNations Ambassadors and Consuls, who host the official events and activities, and for our team members, especially for the Community Engagement Team, who support the Consuls and Ambassadors. It was on that day in March that we decided to switch the team to remote work — and, what’s more important, to temporarily cancel all in-person events due to COVID-19.
“It didn’t come as a complete surprise,” says Nichelle, one of our two Community Engagement Leads. “The virus had been spreading in China and other parts of East Asia for a while. It had increasingly become an issue for these communities since January.” “But we’d hoped it wouldn’t affect all our members quite so badly,” her fellow Team Lead Miriam adds. “For example, we hadn’t expected the virus to hit so many European cities so hard at the same time.”
InterNations wiped out the entire event calendar — with, on average, several thousand events per month — in one fell swoop, keeping everyone’s health and safety in mind. However, since the regional COVID-19 outbreak had suddenly turned into a full-blown pandemic, there was no detailed “plan B”. A community that connects global minds put the most popular way of connecting people on hold overnight: The Community Engagement Team had to start from scratch.
“We took the lead from our Ambassadors and Consuls,” Nichelle recounts. “They’re the experts on the ground in our communities, and many are very proactive; so, we followed their example.” The first few online events were suggested and took place in some communities as early as February, but nearly 4 million InterNations members worldwide needed an alternative to meeting in person, now more than ever. “We really wanted to give them a way of staying in touch,” Miriam says. “That’s why we established a project team to figure out what the world of online events was all about.”
“We Had to Start from Scratch”: Which Challenges Were Involved in Developing Online Events
When tackling this challenge, the Community Engagement Team had to address several issues. First of all, they had to understand how exactly online events worked. Answering this question required some research, but mostly a lot of creativity and experimentation. The team looked into how other organizations, such as XING Events (another subsidiary of our parent company New Work SE) deal with hosting online events; they also engaged in intensive brainstorming sessions for potential event formats, from the large InterNations Official Events to activities for our interest-based groups.
Our community engagement specialists attended or hosted online events themselves, just to see what it was like. “During the lockdown in spring, I baked bread with a group from the Frankfurt Community,” Nichelle remembers, “and Miriam and I organized a lunch activity ‘in’ Nairobi together, which was a lot of fun.” In addition to collecting valuable feedback from hosts and attendees, this approach helped the team get insights into what was required to make online events a great experience.
“We realized, for example, that a very high English language proficiency, as well as rhetorical and moderation skills, are far more important online,” Miriam explains. It’s harder to make up for a linguistic misunderstanding or dispel any initial awkwardness during a videoconference, while in face-to-face meetings, a friendly smile and a brief hug will go a long way.
Moreover, the team soon discovered that not all event formats can be transferred to the virtual world. Although there was some demand for virtual workouts during the lockdown, most sports and leisure activities work best outdoors. Other groups really thrive online, though. “Professional networking, business coaching, and personal development work extremely well,” says Miriam.
Breaking down the technological barrier involved plenty of testing and experimentation as well. Since many of our community engagement specialists are expats themselves, they were already familiar with video chats and videoconferencing software. However, now they had to really know the pros and cons of different tools in order to learn what worked best and why, and then they needed to draw up a list of technical requirements. In the end, Zoom was their tool of choice.
Acquiring new expertise on the organizational and technical skills it takes to host a great online event helped our community engagement specialists support the Ambassadors and Consuls. They added a lot of new material to our Resource Center, coming up with guidelines, practical advice, and supplementary materials, such as PowerPoint presentations for our Newcomers’ Events.
They have also been making good use of the online format themselves. They now organize regular video tutorials for Consuls and Ambassadors, giving them tips and best practices on a variety of topics, such as how to use Zoom and how to safely resume in-person events in communities that have recently reopened.
“Everyone Has Been Truly Amazing”: How This Challenge Boosted Team Spirit
The past five months have been a very busy time for the Community Engagement Team, with a very steep learning curve too. Adding a completely new event format in a relatively short time put the team leads’ crisis-management skills to the test, and they also welcomed several new members while working fully remotely.
An influx of new employees wasn’t necessarily a disadvantage, though. While onboarding colleagues is harder to do online, it can be a benefit that new team members aren’t familiar with established workflows. In a transition period, when processes keep changing and evolving, new colleagues can provide fresh ideas and perspectives. Nichelle and Miriam had to keep up the team spirit, though, and make sure that everyone got to know one another despite working from home. To help with this, they regularly organize virtual team lunches and afterwork drinks with fun icebreaker games.
“I learned a lot about myself in this time. Especially that it’s okay not to be perfect and not to always have everything in place. Whatever happens, I can deal with it — I’m really Zen now,” Miriam jokes. “But most importantly, the entire team has been truly amazing. I am very proud of what we achieved together.” The COVID-19 crisis and the online events have actually brought the Community Engagement Team closer together, both personally and professionally.
But, of course, it takes a village: They also needed support from our Product Experience Teams to add new features to the InterNations website and app, for example, a global events calendar; from Community Support to collect and respond to member feedback; and from the Product Content Team to communicate all updates, among other things.
“It’s almost unbelievable how much has gotten done in less than half a year!” says Nichelle.
“Online Events Are Here to Stay”: Why the New Format Is a Valuable Addition
Nichelle and Miriam agree that online events are definitely here to stay, for a variety of reasons. In the spring, many people had assumed the COVID-19 crisis would be over by the fall. However, this is most likely not the case. On the one hand, we have resumed in-person events in more than half of our 420 communities worldwide, which is often greeted with enthusiastic responses. The need to meet other people face to face is clearly there, and it will always be a core tenet of the InterNations community.
On the other hand, many official events and activities are still subject to health and safety restrictions; some communities are even going through a second lockdown. For them, online events are an invaluable way of socializing, sometimes the only one.
However, even if scientists come up with a COVID-19 vaccine in the near future, online events will remain a part of InterNations. The virtual activities will soon be added to the benefits of our premium Albatross Membership. While we’ve had nearly 13 years of experience in connecting global minds locally, the new event format now helps them interact globally as well. It has boosted the audience for niche interests: photography groups, book clubs, creative writing groups, among others, have seen a far higher number of sign-ups. To participate in a photo contest or to discuss the latest bestseller, it doesn’t matter if you live in London, New York, or Dubai.
Online events are a useful offering for members in small communities with few in-person events, for people with mobility impairments, and for those living in remote areas. They also allow for cross-community collaboration on a truly global scale. Miriam points out that members from Accra and Tokyo successfully co-hosted an online event, while Nichelle joined the Filipino Culture Group in Doha, Qatar, to reconnect with her roots as a Filipina-American expat.
“We chatted about the Filipino tradition of pasalubong, which is a very specific way of bringing back gifts for our loved ones at home,” she explains. “I know this custom very well from growing up, but it was nice to discuss it with other people who have Filipino heritage or family members.”
InterNations Live! Our Anniversary Party Goes Online Too
This year, even the InterNations anniversary celebrations will take place online. The Community Engagement Team has been busy planning a five-day global festival with several virtual “stages” and main acts for late September. “It’s called ‘InterNations Live!’ and our goal is to have members from all 420 communities worldwide join us,” says Nichelle.
Of course, all team members are invited, too; and we’ll bring you more news about our global online anniversary festival in next month’s blog!
Image credit: InterNations / iStockphoto / private (Nichelle Luarca)