Stay away from me! Now let’s talk

After five weeks of social distancing I have time to reflect on our working environment. Since the first case was identified in Australia in late January our worlds have been drastically changed and with no known end in sight. The road to recovery may take time. These changes have left us all feeling somewhat powerless with imposed restrictions that have taken away our ability to make decisions about our own lives. I bet none of us thought we would feel so upset about not being able to go to the movies. We have Netflix, right? Even mundane activities in our life seem to cause us a sense of loss that comes from the routine of daily life. The uncertainty also looms large with many not knowing when or indeed if they will get back to work or running their businesses. Some are left isolated from their families whilst others are struggling to home school children while working from home. The ways we are affected may differ, but we are in this together.

by Andrea Kanaris, National Technical Leader, Social Impact Assessment (SIA)

The effects of all this social distancing has been raised with me by my colleagues and clients when trying to navigate their way through the Covid-19 climate. I wanted to share my responses to the three main questions my colleagues are asking:

  1. Is it appropriate to consult during the Covid-19?
  2. How do you engage community in a time of crisis?
  3. How do you engage the community, especially vulnerable groups, safely and maintain social distancing?

There are many positive benefits in engaging during Covid-19. None more obvious than providing communities, who are feeling disempowered, the opportunity to engage about decisions that will affect their lives.

Is it appropriate to consult during Covid-19?

The simple answer is yes. The question of appropriateness should more correctly apply to ‘how’ you consult during Covid-19 not ‘if’ you should consult. While the methods we adopt might need to change, the fundamental rules of community engagement do not. When engaging community, you need to:

  • be open and transparent;
  • clear and concise;
  • respectful;
  • provide options; and
  • communicate in a manner appropriate to your audience.

Letting those simple rules guide the way will hold you in good stead.

How do you engage in a time of crisis?

When communicating with community members who are in crisis it is important to take time to think about how you approach people. Be mindful that the person you are speaking with has been isolated for some time, and as a result may need someone to listen to them. Look for signs of distress as you may be able to guide them and support them to seek assistance if they are feeling lonely and/or are having mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. Caring for your community serves everyone well.

Remember that the decision to participate belongs to the community member. Extending an invitation is not harmful, withholding one might be, ask anyone who was not invited to the party! Making presumptions, whilst well intended, are often harmful especially at a time when emotions are heightened. A small gesture such as an invitation to be part of a discussion about their community is likely to be a welcome distraction as well as providing a sense of empowerment.

How do you engage community, especially vulnerable groups, safely and maintain social distancing?

Luckily, we are in the technology era so the ability to communicate without being face to face is quite easy to do. The closest thing to face to face is videoconferencing and it is very effective. My advice when using this technology, especially if you are concerned the community member is not very tech savvy, is to keep it simple. Explore the most user-friendly apps and products you can find e.g. FaceTime.

The most challenging is how to replicate methods such as community information sessions, focus groups and/or workshops.

Again, there are a range of online tools that allow for facilitation of forums and discussions. Many will integrate your online community engagement allowing you to provide up to date and accurate information in the same location where you administer surveys and facilitate discussions. It is important to take the time to understand the tool very well and many have good privacy and monitoring functions. Do your homework on the technology you are using and make sure you know how to use it.

I have heard many people say that older people do not use the internet or are not comfortable with using online tools to communicate. This is the most common issue raised by clients when talking about online surveys. As a response I always offer the opportunity to provide written or telephone surveys. The interesting thing is written surveys are rarely completed and returned which means a low response rate. Telephone surveys are labour intensive without necessarily providing a high response rate. The community’s preference does appear to be online surveys.

I would also like to share a personal story to demonstrate that not all is what it seems. My mother is 81 and almost blind in both eyes. Her technical abilities are, well limited seems generous shall we say, and it provides the family with a good laugh as well as some rather frustrating moments. My mother is the quintessential older person who will resist change and harps on about the old days when people talked to each other face to face, complaining about why kids don’t get off their phone and internet and … well you know how it goes! No sooner has my mother finished this rather well worn out speech she is on Facebook messenger to her friends and beloved grandchildren. I swear at times it is as difficult to get her off the phone as it is a teenager. I FaceTime my mother daily, I only see about a quarter of her face, but it keeps her connected and happy.

Get creative and explore the options. If there are community members who are not comfortable perhaps this is an opportunity to provide some capacity building and teach them. That would be a wonderful gift to leave in your community, the ability to connect in a time of social distancing and uncertainty.