When lockdown arrived in March 2020, it was clear that our carefully laid plans for a two day residential Collaboration Building Workshop were going to have to change. We initially thought that we might be able to hold the event in person by postponing to November, but by the summer it seemed clear that these plans would also need to be altered.

Taking the workshop online was the obvious course, but was a daunting prospect. How could people make meaningful connections with complete strangers online? Would they manage to build collaborations that could last? Were they going to develop project proposals that we could fund? But a virtual sandpit was also an opportunity; in preparing a face to face workshop, we’d had misgivings about excluding people with caring responsibilities, or who would have long distances to travel. And requiring people to travel to an event also meant contributing to air pollution. We hoped that an online event would allow us to address these issues.

Our experimental workshop finished in mid-November and we were delighted with the results. 28 researchers took part in the workshop, and between them they produced six project proposals. Our funding panel awarded Scoping Study funds to five of these proposals, and invited the sixth to re-submit, and this wasn’t just to avoid making difficult decisions: the proposals all offered good opportunities for new collaborations (see point 5 below). Feedback from the participants was very positive, both about the new working relationships they made, and about the format of the workshop itself. 100% of participants said they found the workshop ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’. One participant said they learned “lots of options for online interaction, a bit about STFC and it’s [sic] potential for future links, lots of amazing contacts! Thank you!”.

So what did we learn from our experience? These are just some of my initial reflections.

1. A good facilitator is worth their weight in gold.

We were very fortunate to work with Christine Bell from the Centre for Facilitation, whose creative ideas in designing the workshop and skillful management of each session was appreciated by everyone. One participant said the facilitation was “Amazing, really engaging and effective, can’t fault it one bit! Wish more events were run like this.”. Christine was able to create a warm, friendly atmosphere that drew everyone in and encouraged them to participate fully. Seemingly little details, such as always inviting everyone to switch on their cameras when she wanted their attention, made a huge difference to everyone’s engagement. One participant commented that in other online events she would be distracted by emails and doing other things, but in this she felt focussed and ‘in the room’. An excellent facilitator was crucial to the success of the workshop.

2. Online events allowed for real life to continue

One problem with ‘sandpit’ events is that anyone with caring responsibilities, or in a role where they can’t take two days out of the office, is immediately excluded from the process and loses out on funding. We carefully designed our timetable to fit within 10am – 3pm to fit in with school runs, and allowed enough time in between sessions for the additional work to be completed without using evenings or weekends. 26% of our participants said that they would not have been able to attend if the event had been face to face. Some participants noted that they were able to fit the workshop in around their teaching schedules, and one participant managed to deliver a project idea to the group whilst also bouncing his baby in his lap! We want to strive to make all our events as diverse and inclusive as possible, and an online format helped us to do this.

3. Avoiding ‘Zoom fatigue’

Rather than replicate the timetable of the two day event online, we decided to spread it out over two weeks, with no more than 3 hours on Zoom in a day. We also built in small breaks throughout each session, where participants were invited to turn off their cameras for 5 minutes. This allowed time for reflection and to stretch legs, without feeling ‘on display’. One of the side effects of our schedule was that participants had more time to reflect and develop their ideas in between sessions than they would have done in an intensive sandpit process. One participant commented “The format was brilliant, and in many ways actually better than an in-person workshop as it gave time for us to step away from the ideas and let them slowly develop.”

4. Collaboration, not competition

We placed an emphasis on building a community through the workshop, and spent time thinking about what leads to good collaboration. This led to a genuinely supportive atmosphere amongst the participants, rather than a cutthroat dash for the funding. Our aim as a network is to build lasting collaborations, so we were delighted to see that the projects were all new teams, with great potential for further work that will benefit the air quality community.

5. Real things happen in a virtual space

Of course, the aim of the workshop was to develop new research ideas that could be funded by SAQN. We had a maximum of six pots of £8,000 to award, and (subject to re-submission) may be able to award every one of these. The funding panel were impressed by the quality of the applications, the high standard of presentation and the ability of the teams to develop these ideas in a short space of time. We are looking forward to seeing the results of these projects over the coming months. The topics included are ammonia, machine learning, air reference units, indoor air quality and sensors for eddy covariance.

Finally, on a personal note, I have learned a huge amount about the ways we can make meaningful connections in an online environment. I am excited to apply this learning to future SAQN events, as online events offer low-cost, low-polluting ways to make lasting collaborations. Of course, there were many things about the workshop that we feel could have been improved, and we are continuing our discussions about these to make the next Collaboration Building Workshop even more successful!