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30 March 2020

Keep moving on sustainability projects with less travel: 5 tips for hosting a virtual learning retreat

Living in the time of COVID-19, it is crucial to limit air travel, but stay productive. One of the projects in which ICLEI Africa is involved hosted an international virtual learning retreat and shares its top tips that city officials and organisations alike can use to connect virtually.

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Research done by the FRACTAL project reveals that collaboration between scientists, climate experts, city officials and citizens is an effective way to build climate resilience that is long-lasting and impactful. However, such collaboration requires stakeholders to meet face-to-face at interactive workshops, which involves regular international travel throughout a project.

Air travel currently accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and Manchester Metropolitan University predicts these emissions could double, or even triple, by 2050. Even a short haul flight, between London and Paris, emits 92kg CO2 per passenger, which is more than the average annual emissions for one person in Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and Rwanda. Organisations promoting sustainability and government officials are often in the spotlight when it comes to travel emissions and, in the current COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is rethinking ways to work during travel restrictions.

It’s a known challenge for such development-based organisations and city leaders – the amount of travel needed in order to get stakeholders together when many project partners are spread across the globe. The FRACTAL project, for instance, receives funding from the United Kingdom, has nine project cities in seven African countries and research consortium members in, among others, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium.


The virtual learning retreat as an alternative

With the environmental impact of frequent air travel top of mind, FRACTAL recently piloted an alternative method for bringing partners and project cities together for a much-needed three-day learning retreat to share learnings and reflect on the past four years of the project.

The virtual learning retreat brought together all FRACTAL cities and universities from the comfort of their offices to discuss the project’s impact and design new activities for the next phase. Out of the 30 participants that came and went during the three days, on average 12 were actively involved at one time.

“It was an experiment, but for me the virtual learning retreat was a huge success. It was a wonderful way to really take personal time out to reflect and gather all of our lessons, critique and impacts.”

Jessica Kavonic, ICLEI Africa

While the retreat certainly could not replace all face-to-face meetings and workshops and their associated travel commitments, it lessened the amount of trips the project enabled, while achieving inspired and strategic outcomes.

The tips that follow are equally applicable to city leaders struggling to achieve their deliverables during a time of limited travel.

Five tips for organising a successful virtual retreat

Kavonic engaged actively in the retreat throughout the three days and shared some tips, challenges and useful software for anyone interested in reducing their project’s CO2 emissions by organising a virtual learning retreat.

1. Have a guiding document and put in the time to prepare

Prepare a thorough guiding document that all participants have access to. This document should contain an agenda, all links, presentations, documents and prompting questions referred to during the sessions. It needs to be easy and clear to follow.

2. Book the retreat in your diary

Participants need to book themselves ‘out of the office’ for the duration of the retreat. An out of office auto-reply will remind colleagues that participants are ‘away’ and a sign on the office door will reinforce this message. It will also grant participants ‘permission’ to focus only on the retreat. Participants that share office space are encouraged to book a meeting room for the duration of the retreat.

3. Make sure your working relationships are strong

The FRACTAL project ‘family’ have been working closely together for four years and therefore understand each other’s approach to work. With a virtual retreat that has many participants, misunderstandings are avoided if the participants already have a good working relationship. Hence virtual retreats work best once face-to-face rapport has been established. Similarly, city officials that have a working relationship and that often connect will find it easier to continue these connections online. If you’re connecting online for the first time, consider an online ice breaker to get everyone on the same page. 

4. Use a technology platform that participants are familiar with and that works

Choose a platform that has been tested and is known to work well with the participants who will be present. Ironing out any connection and functionality issues prior to the learning retreat reduces the time spent during sessions trying to resolve these issues. Although, budgeting for a bit of ‘lost time’ to sort out any on-the-day connectivity issues, eases pressure on the organisers and participants. Be sure to find a platform that allows the sessions to be recorded, allowing those unable to join the meeting, the option of listening later. A platform that allows smaller breakaway groups to meet and discuss issues is also useful.

5. Consider other online learning platforms

A virtual learning retreat can definitely move a project forward, but every participant’s individual effort will drive the projects to continue succeeding. Consider online learning platforms like Apolitical – specifically designed for government officials – and resources like the ones in the ICLEI Africa resource library to continue learning, being inspired, and achieving project deliverables in new and innovative ways. 

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