An honest reflection on the UK’s first virtual Group Relations Conference

6 August 2020

As they emerge from new Group Relations Conference (GRC) territory, GRC directors Mel Mahadevan and Sarah Wynick give a personal account and learnings from the new virtual conference.


In July, the Tavistock and Portman held the UK's first-ever online Group Relations Conference (GRC). Exploring the Complex Realities of Inter-agency Working: a Virtual Group Relations Conference took place between 8 -10 July 2020. The event evolved as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cancellation of the spring and Centenary GRC. Fifty-two student members were joined by a staff group of 12 for the pioneering conference.


We were aware that many students had missed their opportunity to attend a GRC, not to mention their need to attend as part of course requirements. We wanted to enable them to have the learning experience that previous cohorts had, which would aid their personal and professional development.  


And so, a dedicated team began planning for the event in May, strategizing on how to best deliver the conference remotely on Zoom.  The team included Mel Mahadevan, Director, Sarah Wynick, Associate Director, Maisam Datoo and Rachel Kelly, Administrators, along with Simon Kear and Amrik Perera from the Technology Enhanced Learning Team (TEL). 

While the principles and aims of any Group Relations event were retained in the design, we modified aspects of it like shortening the duration and timing of the sessions and adapting some of the individual events. For instance, instead of having a large study group we held a social dreaming matrix every day for all staff and members with a focus on exploring dream associations. Analysing these associations helped us understand the social unconscious of the group.


Attendees had to balance work-study groups with the usual task of exploring small group processes whilst also taking responsibility for the emotional well-being of family members and home commitments. There was a whole system event across two afternoons, where inter-agency dynamics of leadership, followership and collaboration were explored. In addition to this, review and application groups happened twice per day. This made for a conference where fostering connection felt a little more demanding.

The TEL team enabled us to set up large and small group links, allowing for variety and close collaboration. Overall, the technology worked well. However, we did find that it aroused its own anxieties and could also be used as a distraction or way to avoid other issues. With remote staff group meetings, it was easy to feel that there were inhibitions that made it harder for us as a group to navigate than it would have been face-to-face.  This would hold true for members too. However, this didn’t mean that the usual issues and dynamics that you could expect to encounter at a GRC weren’t also present and worked with.


One theme that was consistent throughout was the sense of loss and deprivation felt as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. There was a sense of rushing towards premature solutions in an attempt to avoid the pain of the loss. Members seemed to appreciate our organising this GRC and talked about their reservations prior to it. However, this was tempered with what they felt they had gained by the closing plenary.


Feedback from attendees

Here is survey feedback from attendees on their experience of the first virtual GRC conference:

"I was impressed at how much of a shift I felt despite our only tool being Zoom.  We missed out on interaction in the spaces in between events (I chose not to go to the common room) but although I felt this was a shame, our limited interaction and knowledge of other participants added a different dimension to the conference.  I'm assuming that in a face-to-face conference we would have learnt more about each other and the way we then related would have been different (not necessarily better or worse)."

"I felt I missed out on immersing myself and felt quite disconnected."

"My experience was above average and exceeding my expectations, given it was done remotely.  However, doing GRC in person might've had a bigger impact on my learning."

"I thought it was very well planned and structured, and the frequent breaks made a massive difference to me so that I didn't feel overwhelmed and also that I didn't get Zoom fatigue."

"I need to remember to keep looking through different lenses and seeing different perspectives.  It was amazing the speed at which we ‘othered’ those not in our group and I need to be open to noticing this in my work."

"I have a greater understanding of myself, groups and systems. I felt very lucky to be in such safe and well held smaller groups."

"I would rather have experienced it on zoom than it not go ahead. 9/10 because nothing is perfect."

"I thought the dream matrix was a powerful way of voicing the social impact of our current context." 

"I feel like it gave me the opportunity to develop my thinking despite the online setting, but I wonder what other elements might have played a part in the conference if it would have been in person"


We note that more negative feelings about the conference may well have been harder to express virtually.


Overall, our first virtual GRC brought much in the way of learning. From shortened timetables, to the introduction of social dreaming and ensuring containment – adjustments proved very necessary. And while it’s clear that a virtual GRC is undoubtedly different from a face-to-face one, in switching to digital, its essence isn’t lost. In an age of hyper-digital connection and disconnection, understanding systems and group dynamics has never been more important - zoom call or no zoom call. 

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