As with most of the world, New Zealand has been significantly disrupted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Having seen some very sad news emerging from around the world, New Zealand took an “early and hard” approach – a near complete lockdown for a month from 25 March 2020 when infection numbers were low but starting to increase rapidly, and before the first death.

Time will tell whether this was the right strategy and it’s great to see Australia (for example) gaining similar benefits without the level of disruption as here, however from IT Professionals NZ’s perspective, the situation posed a challenge similar to that of our partner organisations around the world – how to keep members engaged during a lockdown?

For background, IT Professionals NZ (formerly the NZ Computer Society) is the professional body of the tech sector in New Zealand. We have thousands of members across NZ and an active program of member events, courses, certification, mentoring, accreditation of degrees, advocacy to Government, advisory and consulting services to companies looking to manage the professional development of their staff and a whole bunch more.

As with most similar bodies around the world, one of the services we provide is professional networking. People join our body to be engaged with other professionals, to understand what’s happening in their industry, and to be part of a large professional community outside the confines of their workplace.

And in fact, engagement became more important than ever in light of the Covid-19 lockdown. With a high proportion of consultants as members, many of our members work in small teams and in some cases, teams of one. Others were struggling to come to grips with the impact on themselves and their businesses, and the need to be part of a professional community – and engaged as part of that community – became huge.

As with all of us I’m sure, we set to work figuring out how to keep our community engaged within the limitations of the lockdown. In essence, the vast majority of New Zealanders were working from home and while some in our sector were very busy, many tech-related projects had paused so many were facing a double whammy of no or low levels of work and being confined to their house for much of the day.

Internally, our team was fortunate in that we had practised our Business Continuity Planning ahead of the lockdown, including all-hands working from home, and the team was comfortable and could focus on what engagement looked like for our members.

The following is what worked for us during NZ’s lockdown:

Tech Chat Tuesdays

The idea of Tech Chat Tuesdays (initially twice a week, on Thursdays as well) was that our members could “attend” then be broken into random groups of around five or six people for 15-minute, fairly informal chat sessions. We ran two sessions one after the other.

We provided some talking points to get things going and people could engage as much or little as they wanted with no expectations (important for introverts!). It sounds simple, and isn’t that different to Zoom Happy Hours, however we found it really helped for members to be able to share what they were going through and take comfort that they weren’t alone.

We used Zoom with a “Large meeting” licence, which allows up to 200 attendees to be broken into breakout rooms (we determine the number of rooms based on the number of attendees that session). Additional accounts can be used to split up larger groups into different accounts ensuring a maximum of 200 per account (the limit for breakouts).

We’re still running these and would love for some of our international colleagues to attend. They’re free and at 2pm NZST every Tuesday – not ideal for everyone of course. Details on our website

“Friday Live” Webinars

Webinars are an obvious answer to engaging online, however we wanted to do something different to just a “standard” Webinar, predicting (correctly) that our sector would soon be inundated with webinar options.

As a result, the Friday Live webinar concept was born. We made the early decision to go for a slightly more informal “magazine” style format for the webinar and made it 4pm on Fridays, traditionally a terrible time for events. We predicted – correctly – that people would be keen to finish their week with it, perhaps with a refreshment in hand.

We also structured the hour-long weekly webinar into three components:

  • 20-minute roundup of tech news. We have three paid journalists who write stories for our TechBlog and weekly email update, so we quickly got them to agree to a panel roundup of their stories for the week, and other tech news.
  • A 20-minute speaker on a particular current topic.
  • 20-minute Q&A with the speaker, taking questions from live attendees.

I host the Friday Live webinars, focusing on ensuring a good flow between sessions and curating and putting live questions to the speaker. We’ve delivered sessions on crisis innovation, cybersecurity when working from home, a panel of lawyers looking at tech-related legal issues, and a data scientist looking at the data behind Covid-19, with upcoming sessions on mental wellbeing, privacy (with the NZ Privacy Commissioner) and other topics.

We also run occasional “standard” webinar sessions on Wednesdays on getting through the lockdown, looking for the silver lining (opportunities presented) and others, always with the model of lots of live Q&A to engage attendees.

We use the Zoom Webinar Edition software to manage the webinar and also simulcast it on Facebook. Between those watching live on Zoom and Facebook, plus those who watch them later on Facebook or our internal video library, thousands tune in every week.

The format works well for our community – check out this one on Cybersecurity when working from home for example. The others are on the ITPNZ Facebook page as well.

Digital Workshops and Courses

We run a wide program of workshops and short courses and had started to put many of these into a live online delivered format. We quickly moved the remainder to online and increased the frequency of these significantly so people could use the downtime to upskill. 

We have also run webinar workshops on our certification programs (Chartered IT Professional NZ and Certified Technologist) and these have also been very popular.

Members vs Non-Members

We made the early decision to open these webinars up to members and non-members alike, free to everyone. While we normally either provide events to members only or charge a larger fee for non-member attendance, we thought we’d use the opportunity to try to reach a larger audience with these webinars.

The strategy has worked and we’ve seen an increase in members over the lockdown as more people in our sector are exposed to our organisation and see us as relevant.

A Note on Zoom

You’ll notice that we use Zoom for much of this and it has certainly had its share of issues over the last few weeks. We were as concerned as anyone about the issues uncovered, but also the potential reputational issues associated with using it as a professional body. 

This was also weighed up against the fact that it is arguably the best tool for these sorts of things – and while we evaluated a few others, none offered the feature-set we needed.

As with everything security-related, our “use case” was the core issue here. While we wouldn’t recommend highly confidential activities are conducted over Zoom (or others for that matter), after taking advice from security experts it was determined that there was no significant risk for our use cases – given the webinars were public anyway.

This is also covered in the Cybersecurity webinar with Dr Elf Eldridge linked to above.

In Summary

We feel we’ve been fairly successful in providing opportunities for our members to still feel engaged with their professional community during lockdown. This isn’t to say our approach was better than any other or would even work in other markets. But one of the great things about IFIP is it provides us all the ability to share our learnings, and the approach above has really worked for us. We’re looking forward to hearing what has worked for you.

The takeaway is that, even in the most unforeseen and difficult circumstances, professional bodies have the ability to connect and engage with members using everyday tools. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can make a huge difference to our communities.