The “new normal” resulting from COVID-19 has propelled us into the world of virtual group relations. Considerable anxiety accompanies the movement of our work in group relations into a virtual environment.
In August 2020 I directed my first virtual group relations conference, which was designed for psychiatry chief residents in the US to learn about authority and leadership. The forty-four members and twelve staff engaged in a remarkably intimate and authentic group relations conference experience as evaluated by a highly qualified conference staff which included four previous conference directors in addition to me. The conference schedule was identical to a face to face conference, which seems to debunk the idea that the immersion in a virtual experiential conference needs to be tempered to prevent “Zoom fatigue.”
My next conference in China this December has probably also been affected by anxieties about working virtually. When we planned for a face to face conference, we included a research task to study both the experiences of members and staff. The consulting staff became concerned about being studied like “laboratory rats,” though much of the concern was projected onto how the members might react to research. We decided to offer a more modest conference size of fifty-five rather than the seventy members initially planned, to reduce the schedule from five days to four days and limit the research task to an internal study of staff dynamics without involving any study of individual member’s experiences. Ironically, once the staff anxiety was processed, registration of members proceeded at an unanticipatedly brisk pace, with more than sixty applications in the first two weeks.
An additional acceptance of the “new normal” is evident in the planning of virtual conferences well in advance. We do not seem to expect to be able to hold face to face conferences in the near future.
I am planning on directing a virtual conference for Russian colleagues next spring in association with colleagues from Group Relations Lithuania, and I am working on a proposal for a virtual conference for stakeholders in the Middle East peace process, who would otherwise not be able to attend a face-to-face conference even without the pandemic due to unstable and impermeable political boundaries. These developments have certainly been facilitated by an increased willingness to consider the use of virtual technologies in group relations as a result of the pandemic.