It is 8pm on a Thursday in April 2020 and the members of the Erasmus+ ISSUE project are having a German style dinner together. Rhine valley potato pancakes (“Rievkooche”) are on the menu and some are even enjoying a German beer, just as you do in the land of golden brews. Glasses are raised from dining rooms in Spain, the UK, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Germany and everyone shares their current experiences and stories of living through a global pandemic. Everything is different at this fourth ISSUE transnational partner meeting that everyone was much looking forward to before Corona virus had different plans for all of us. Therefore, we had to get inventive.
Everyone at Home - Connected
Instead of meeting in Cologne (Germany) from April 16 – 17, partners organized the meeting in two half-day online video sessions. The agenda was adapted to the new circumstances and the Cologne Team found creative ways of giving it all a “kölsch” (local dialect for Colognian) touch with the shared German recipe and online dinner being one of their ideas. A video tour through CBS International Business School, along the Rhine River and through the streets of Cologne started the second day of the meeting, followed by a city quiz. “It helped to generate a sense of community and a flavour of a different culture,” according to David Devins from Leeds-Becket University in the UK.
When Life Gives you Lemons…
Even though partners had been looking forward to getting together again, catching up face-to-face and getting to explore yet another city and country culture together, this meeting also enabled us all to critically reflect on what we hadn’t questioned before and to reevaluate what is standard travel procedure within the Erasmus+ strategic partnership programs. Disappointment was in the air when everyone decided to move things online; nevertheless, participants evaluated the meeting as a “surprisingly good experience” as Zsuzsanna Győri from Budapest Business School sums it up. Partners agreed that the two half-days spent together were very efficient, concentrated, interactive, well organized, and productive. It resulted in very clear outcomes for the project partners as well as a shared understanding on where the project is currently at and how to move forward.
From the advantages that can be pointed out, saving of time and money are certainly the most obvious ones. Saved travel times can be put to use that is more productive and flexible for the participants. Due to shorter breaks, efficient teamwork and less personal side conversations, we moreover managed to cut the meeting time in half with nevertheless very effective outcomes. In addition, the clearly structured and well-executed online agenda forced people to be more on point with their comments and feedback. All circumstances aside, the meeting was still able to provide a sense of “coming together” and experiencing a different city “thanks to the extra efforts of our German colleagues”. Silvia Damme, one of the hosts from the Cologne team resumes: “We were of course very sad not to be able to host and show our ISSUE colleagues around in our city. It was still a great experience to see what creative solutions we could come up with to still make them feel welcome from our side”. Further, participants found positivity in saving emissions from not flying across Europe. As leading project manager László Varga (Budapest Business School) points out: “This is very important for the future – Especially in case of a project dealing with sustainable solutions and tools for educational institutions.” By moving the meeting online, ISSUE partners were able to save approximately 4.23 tons of CO2. This equals around 21,150 km driven by car – almost a car ride all the way from Cologne to Namibia and back again – or washing 17,625 loads of laundry at 30C°.
Strengthen Personal Relationships in the Beginning & Find Balance to Move Forward More Sustainably
Still, no virtual experience can live up to actually “having Kölsch in Köln” says Rok Ramsak from IEDC in Slovenia. Besides all the benefits that come with meeting online, no one of the partners thinks that Erasmus+ should move all transnational partner meetings of a project online in the future. Meeting in person strengthens personal ties within the team, even form friendships and enables partners to get to know and maybe even be inspired by experiencing partner institutions and their (working) culture first hand. All of which “helps a lot in later cooperation and joint work” according to László Varga (BBS). After all, cultural exchange and the forming of long-term transnational partnerships is an integral part and a core mission of the EU Erasmus+ program. Moreover, in terms of working together effectively, online communication still lacks behind in reading participants’ body language correctly. In addition, some participants feel that long online meetings make it harder to stay concentrated.
However, some partners expressed openness towards reducing the overall amount of travels within projects. “Personally, I think that one in-person meeting per year would be sufficient” says Marina Schmitz from CBS International Business School in Cologne. Hereby, a special focus should be set on strengthening personal connections in the beginning phase of the international project. Brian Jones from Leeds Becket University in the UK sums it up as follows: “There needs to be a new balance between online and in-person TPMs. This will undoubtedly deliver cost savings and increase efficiency. The first and final meetings certainly need to be in-person and the meetings between need to be a mix of the two.” One major factor in making the online transnational partner meeting a success was undoubtedly the already very close and trusting relationship within the ISSUE team. As Rok Ramsak (IEDC) points out – and at this point thank you again to our Finish partners for a great meeting at Lappeenranta University of Technology in December 2019 – “some even shared a sauna!”