People in conversation

For a Successful Shift to Virtual Work, Lean into Purpose

Image: Video Conference

“We cannot simply retrofit our in-person reality to the online space. But we can stay grounded in our shared purpose, and design accordingly.”

As the whole world (seemingly) makes the shift to working and convening online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one big question keeps coming up.


How can we not just adjust our work to the virtual space but actually adapt, so we meet our shared purposes online just as well as we would in person?


As an Essential Partners Associate, I am currently engaged with several projects—in higher education, theatre, non-profits, and high schools. In each of these, our partners are navigating many uncertainties. They’re being forced to make decisions that impact people’s health and safety as well as their livelihoods, access to basic needs, future prospects, sense of community, and more.


Holding these tensions is incredibly challenging. In one project, we are helping a large institution design a strategy for listening and constructive communication. Before the pandemic, we imagined doing so through in-person facilitation, training, and designing new communication systems.


But that’s not possible now. And for a long time, we were stuck. How could we possibly achieve the same outcomes without being in the room together?


My colleague, Meenakshi, offered a brilliant solution. She suggested that we acknowledge and leverage this moment of uncertainty and stress—that we work with and within it, rather than trying to work around and through it. Instead of focusing on circumstances, we focus instead on purpose.


The purpose of this project was to develop a culture and strategy of constructive (internal) communication, which led to contingency planning once the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.


We designed a new exercise to use collective reflection as a way to observe this moment of dynamism and change more deeply and clearly. We invited the participants to reflect on the negative patterns exacerbated by the transition to virtual spaces, as well as the patterns that are serving their community well in this stressful moment.


We cannot simply retrofit our in-person reality to the online space. But we can stay grounded in our shared purpose, and design accordingly.


Download our new free resource, Designing for Purpose in Virtual Engagements, to help you plan your next online meeting, training, dialogue, or convening!


This period of physical distancing invites us to meet challenges with fresh eyes. If we are to pursue our goals creatively and effectively, we must design from scratch, navigating uncertainties with purpose as our anchor.

Meg Griffiths is an Associate and the Director of Programs at Essential Partners.