TiHS Episode 14: Jennifer Chan – moving a design lab online when a pandemic closes your organization’s door

Things moved quickly, like everywhere. Suddenly schools closed. Travel was discouraged. Community service agencies had to decide if they were going to close and how they would continue to provide service.

In this interview, Jennifer Chan of North York Community House talks about how she quickly decided to move an upcoming design lab online with her team of facilitators and twenty youth researchers. Her team has been working to better understand the everyday lives of community members – their hopes, fears, and challenges – and using this learning to create programs that meet their specific needs.

Even though she is a seasoned facilitator and very technically literate, there were challenges to overcome.

Listen as she describes:

  • how she made the decision
  • what it was like at her agency during a time of decision chaos as they worked to ensure their community could continue to be served
  • How her shift online rolled out, including the technology choices she made and how her team had to pivot as they were working together online
  • How group dynamics shifted from the first meeting to the second
  • Key things Jennifer recommends you think about when doing online work

Key themes that emerged for me when Jennifer talks about working with her team online: 

Everyone understood it was a bit of an experiment. It was bumpy. Some tech worked and they had to pivot to another tech they were familiar with. Team members took the lead and recommended another technology tool they were familiar with. It worked. Trust was important. Uncertainty was OK.

Time was tight, but they made it work. Lessons for future include:

  • Know your tech tools deeply. But have a back up. When they suddenly realized that Google Hangouts (free) capped participants at 15 and they had 21, the day could have been derailed. But a youth team member suggested a pivot to Discord and it worked.
  • Test your tech ahead of time. Jenn was pivoting quickly, and used the technology she had. But you need to plan for the tech as much as you need to plan your overall agenda. And be ready to pivot when something doesn’t work.
  • Different technology has different features, you may not get everything you want, but you should know what it has so you can plan accordingly. On the second day, Jennifer was able to use a tool Google Meet (paid), she also found more functionality that was useful for them (recording, auto transcript and more), although being able to see when people were typing in Discord was particularly useful. As well, in Google Meet, when using video, you can’t see everyone in a gallery view like you can in Zoom. 
  • Plan more than you think you need to. Jennifer created a very specific detailed agenda including links to online breakout rooms 
  • The design and innovation program approach lent itself to a more fluid team dynamic that allowed for uncertainty, pivoting and learning as they worked.
  • As the group becomes comfortable working online together (including with the tools), it becomes easier. Jenn found that team members regained their personalities on the second day. Having small group breakout rooms online was key. They were still very productive, but group dynamics were more comfortable, as if they were in person. Team members had “broken the virtual walls in their breakout rooms” and brought that back into the main virtual meeting space.

Useful resources:

Jenn shared some documents she circulated before their online meetings. Of note, she created some Rules of Engagement. Simple, practical, but important:


“This is going to be different for all of us. Please be patient with everyone as we move through this day.

Mute Yo’self 
As great as online tools can be. We are already having a bit of a broken conversation, let’s help out by putting ourselves on mute when we aren’t talking.

Staying Notified
Turn on your notifications on Slack so that you get messages during our time together in case you are in a break-out room and get lost in your conversation. 

Being Present 
Try to be as present as you would be in-person. It is easy to have lots of tabs open and be checking other things when notifications are popping up. Try to minimize external distractions. 

Reflecting on Process 
This is an experiment, jot down your thoughts, concerns, and questions and help us learn from all of this messiness! 

Here are her planning documents. Click on each link to get the PDF. They’re embedded below so you can see the content:




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