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Designing engaging online events to counteract Zoom fatigue and get stuff done

Rachael Ainsworth

Rachael Ainsworth

SSI fellow

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Designing engaging online events to counteract Zoom fatigue and get stuff done

Posted by j.laird on 11 September 2020 - 9:30am

laptop on deskPhoto by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

By Katie Pratt (Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement) and Rachael Ainsworth (Research Software Community Manager for the Software Sustainability Institute).

Are you tired of sitting through yet another loosely organized 60 minute meeting on Zoom? You’re not alone! With the COVID-19 pandemic came a shift to working online for many in science, and with it an exponential increase in time spent in online meetings. Without the opportunity for informal chats at work, Zoom calls also filled the void of social interactions. Without structure or planning, video meetings, conferences and social events can fall flat, and six months into the pandemic we’re experiencing “Zoom fatigue”. 

At the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (CSCCE) we work with community engagement managers at institutions and organisations around the world who are frequently tasked with running online meetings and events. So, we knew that within our membership we had the key to improving virtual meetings for everyone. Throughout May and June we held a series of writing sprints and invited members of our community of practice to author “recipes” for virtual event formats. The result was a guidebook of 12 event formats, which was downloaded almost 4,000 times in the first two weeks after publication.


The guidebook was designed to address three broad types of interaction that we believe are needed to maintain engaged communities: networking and socialising, information exchange, and collaborating and building together. A theme common to all of the event formats is identifying your goals and then planning and structuring your event to meet those goals. One of the event formats contributed by Rachael Ainsworth is a “collaborative ideas” session, which she and her SSI colleagues used as part of their annual Collaborations Workshop. Here, Rachael describes the event format. 

Collaborative ideas session

The SSI runs an annual Collaborations Workshop unconference series, which brings together a range of stakeholders - researchers, developers, innovators, managers, funders, publishers, leaders and educators - to explore best practices and open issues related to a given theme. One of the sessions within the unconference is the Collaborative Ideas session.


A Collaborative Ideas session connects changemakers in order to identify issues within the community and propose solutions. Participants are able to discuss new projects they want to start, policies they want to see adopted, tools they want built, or problems that they face, and then work together to propose a solution to one of the issues presented. It is output, interaction, and collaboration focused, and also an excellent way of generating project ideas for a hackathon.


Groups of six people or less are randomly assigned to breakout rooms, providing participants the opportunity to network and collaborate with new people. (It can be difficult for all participants to feel included and contribute within larger groups). Participants take turns introducing themselves and something about the work they are doing, the work they would like to do, or issues that are important to them. The group then decides on which idea to take forward, and collectively brainstorms how to get the project off the ground or how to solve the problem. A Collaborative Ideas session works well as a 60-90 minute session, providing enough time for participants to explore, discuss, and transcribe their ideas. 


The output from each group is a 1-2 page description of an idea or project that a team of 3-6 people could work on, for example, during a hackathon. The description should include contextual information (a few sentences to help readers understand where the idea comes from or what research domain it’s relevant to), an outline of the problem and how the idea will help solve the problem. During the Collaborations Workshop, these ideas are then shared to the wider unconference audience and voted on, where the best ideas win prizes. Many are also taken forward to the CW20 Hack Day, where teams have the opportunity to work on the projects and implement the ideas.

Check out the guidebook to read the full breakdown of how to run a collaborative ideas session, along with our other virtual event “recipes.

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