Innovation overcomes engagement challenge

By Donna Shepherd • Managing Director
• Articles

 Nothing beats face-to-face engagement, but this is just another way of doing things. 

— Joseph Sollis – Lead Consultant: Environment, Sustainability + Engagement

Almost every workplace has changed the way it operates in this COVID-19 world.

Creating Communities is no different. We closed our office and stopped most face-to-face client meetings in early March. All staff are working from home.

This might be seen as a real handicap for a business that is experienced in face-to-face engagement with communities and clients.

But we have taken a positive approach to the challenge. Rather than being fearful of making changes to our methods, we decided early on to tackle the problem from a different angle, and fast-tracked innovative ways of working to create opportunities for ourselves and our clients.

Video conferencing is a big part of our new methods. This is something CCA has used at times in the past but now it is our main means of external engagement, as well as internal communication.

Andrew Watt, who leads CCA’s engagement team, has always been a busy man. But his days, and evenings, have been turned into an endless stream of video meetings on platforms such as Zoom, Webex, MS Teams and more. These range from one-on-one calls to virtual public workshops of up to 50 people.

Andrew and his team have 15 projects on the go at the moment, each with a different level of engagement with clients or communities.

One of CCA’s biggest current projects is with DevelopmentWA on a masterplan for Subi East, a redevelopment of 35ha of land covering the former Subiaco Oval and Princess Margaret Hospital sites.

Pre-COVID-19, this entailed running monthly community reference group meetings of more than 40 people at Bob Hawke College. With the restrictions on gatherings, these meetings were shifted online. Direct interaction was possible via Zoom with smaller workshop groups supported by an external website platform, which enabled real-time feedback and collaboration, with features such as the ability to make comments via virtual post-it notes.

CCA also worked with the Australian Urban Design Research Centre to deliver engagement via the use of 3D models. These models were provided to each individual in their homes and consisted of various possible components of the urban make-up of the revamped Subi East site. The reference group members who used them were able to collaborate on testing ideas during the Zoom meetings in the same way they would during a physical meeting.

“We’re being innovative, but adapting to working this way can be complex for us as well as clients and public, especially for people not familiar with the technology,” Andrew says.

“We need to understand how much people know and what computer and online access they have. We can’t assume they have access to technology or that they’re familiar with how the technology works. We need to make people as comfortable as possible engaging in this way.

“We find that people are learning fast. They are using these sorts of platforms in their personal lives to stay in touch with friends and family. Tech engagement is becoming much more normal.”

Andrew has found that running meetings online instead of in person can reach people who might otherwise be missed.

“People don’t always want to come out to a public meeting or workshop,” he says. “For them it is easier to access our resources and offer feedback online. They’re more willing to get involved.

“Nothing beats face-to-face engagement, but this is just another way of doing things.”

Joseph Sollis, CCA’s lead environment, sustainability and engagement consultant, is impressed at how quickly and comfortably people have adapted to this new way of working.

“Ninety-five per cent of people want to continue to engage, to participate in important local processes like planning and development, and share their thoughts and ideas,” Joseph says.

“In a lot of ways, the process hasn’t changed. We just have to find ways to adapt to keep engaging with people and hearing what they think.”

Community surveys are now largely done by links to an app, rather than in person, while text messaging, social media and apps are increasingly effective ways of sending out information and alerts.

CCA is still using “the old ways” for people who don’t have internet access. Letter drops and flyers in mail boxes is still an important way of sharing information. And a lot of work is still done on the phone.

“We’re still putting out hard copy materials and making it clear that people can call us to leave comments and feedback by phone,” Joseph says.

“Where people haven’t had access to a computer but want to engage online, we have set this up for them.”

The direct engagement work is being complemented by new methods of linking people to information about what is happening in their communities.

Creating Communities has established the Stronger Together platform which aims to connect people in local communities to trusted sources of information and advice to help them through this period of shutdowns and isolation.

As part of Stronger Together, local community boards have been established with partners in several communities to provide reliable information when people need it most. They are an online version of an old-fashioned community notice board, with information about local events that are happening online rather than in person. This is complemented by important updates about COVID-19 and links to official news sources.

Stronger Together is also bringing together leading voices in sectors across the WA community in a series of video conversations with tips and insights on navigating these uncertain times. The series includes leaders in mental health, small business, sport, community building, youth development and more. Find this series here.

As a community we are having to spend a lot of our time physically isolated at home, but Creating Communities is striving to make sure that people can still make social connections and that we engage with everyone we need to. Apart from providing important social interaction, this helps ensure important projects can proceed across Western Australia, providing a flow of investment, local development and jobs.