Like many organisations, the PAS office has transformed into an entirely virtual office over the last month. In response to the COVID-19 situation, our team is working remotely from home, ensuring continuity of services whilst maintaining a social or rather ‘physical’ distance. Social distancing is a bit of a misnomer; human connection at this moment is as important as ever. So whilst we are keeping a physical distance during the pandemic, we’re trying to maintain and nurture our social connections.

At the PAS virtual office, we’ve been holding our staff meetings and partner meetings by video call, trying out different video platforms to find what works best for our needs (some of us have had a very rapid learning curve on the IT front!). The move to working remotely has not been without challenge however, whether it’s finding the strongest spot for WiFi connection, creating makeshift work spaces, or simply trying to keep the cat from walking over the keyboard during video calls. However, most of all it’s the connection to each other that we miss.

As a team, we recognise that connection is one of the most important factors for mental health and well-being, so over and above the more formal meetings and video calls, we’ve been taking time to meet, individually or as a group, for virtual coffee breaks, checking in with each other and working to keep that human connection going as far as technology permits.

Thanks to various video conferencing platforms, we’re able to stay quite well connected. Even just five or ten years ago, these options would not have been possible, so we’re thankful to technology for enabling social connection at this challenging time – and not just with colleagues, but importantly also with friends and family.

Our Advice Service remains fully operational, thanks to the flexibility of our staff team and our Advice Service volunteers who are continuing to provide amazing support to the members of the public who use our service. Whilst many of our place-based projects cannot take place in their usual fashion at this time, we’re offering digital training to our volunteers to help further develop their skills. We’re shortly about to launch a series of digital round tables to bring our volunteers together and use this time to be creative and hatch new ideas – so watch this space!

A number of the more technologically-minded staff members have come together to set up a digital development team (aka the ‘Digital Ninjas’) to help the wider team to explore new digital opportunities and ways of working during this time. Recently, we’ve been working on a number of digital engagement projects with partner organisations to take forward projects that would have been delivered face-to-face in an online format. Some elements translate well from offline to online, others require a bit more creativity (and learning how to use different platforms).

We recently held an online interactive workshop with Zero Waste Scotland, bringing together about 30 participants from across the construction and planning sectors to look at how circular economy principles could be embedded into the National Planning Framework 4. Between live video presentations, asking questions via live chat and ideas sharing via an accompanying survey, the online event was highly productive. We’re also currently working on a digital engagement project with Scottish Mediation. In fact, by holding what was to be a physical event in a more accessible online format, we see an opportunity to engage a far wider audience than may have been the case. In many ways, the current quarantine situation is helping us to rapidly advance our digital know-how and we see many opportunities to engage differently and more inclusively going forward.

A number of community organisations have been in touch with us to explore how they can take forward virtual community engagement activities. It is great to see many communities identify opportunities in the current situation to take forward community aspirations for change. Meetings, discussions, even voting procedures can be carried out effectively online. We may not be able to meet in-person but we can have a meeting of the minds. We look forward to supporting many more communities to engage digitally going forward.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting more about our on-going work during quarantine and what the pandemic means for planning and place. In the meantime, Professor Cliff Hague has published his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 and Frank D’hondt Secretary General of ISOCARP has shares his views on the pandemic and planning.