Let’s make virtual conferences the new normal

Before COVID-19, this would be a very far-out perspective. I’m in civil engineering, we’re not known for taking on new things quickly, but that risk-averse culture is necessary when working with large-scale infrastructure that impacts many people’s lives. So this pandemic has forced all of us into a new normal, and in being forced into these spaces, we’re discovering it’s really not that bad and we can make it work. I attended a conference in my field this past week. I used it to present my research and engage with others around that work. We did it all online. Here are my reflections on that experience. I’m keeping out the conference and the platform on purpose – I think my reflections are more general to virtual conference experiences overall, and I also don’t want to focus on idiosyncrasies of one specific platform.

Virtual conferences take less time

The obvious time-saving comes from not having to travel at all – no cabs, airplanes, rental cars, packing your suitcase, etc. The less obvious time-saving is on the opening and closing ceremonies, which I always dread. There are usually 5-10 people lined up to say thank-you’s to 10-20 more people, present awards, breaks for applause, etc. While it’s important to value the people who do the work, it’s very boring as an onlooker, and I always wanted this part of conferences sped up. With recording videos in advance and playing them back to back, we save time on applauding and people going up and down stairs. And with pre-recorded messages that people are reading off of scripts, we also save time on the thank-you’s, which can go on and on, particularly if your ceremony has had some alcohol at it… So overall, the event online has stayed on schedule, which can’t always be said about in-person events!!

It’s easier for the shy & quiet to speak

In all of the sessions I went to, the volume of questions was quite large. Having a way for people to submit questions via text instead of raising your hand and standing up – that goes a long way to help shy people speak up. I’ve been at talks with people I really look up to, and I get nervous that I’ll sound dumb when I ask a question and slip on my words. It really helps to be able to type out my question – it gets said correctly then!

More people can tune in and participate

In February, I was at a conference where 9 people were in the room when I presented my research. This week, there were almost 100 viewers! Were all those 100 people listening to every word I said? Likely not…. but even if only half of the people viewing actually listened to my presentation, that’s a huge number!

I can multi-task and get more done

This is actually both a pro and a con of virtual conferences. I’m in my home, where I have all of my home’s distractions. So yeah, it’s nice that I can do some yoga/cat-petting/cooking/emails while attending the presentations, but then I’m not fully present in the presentations. Maybe I don’t catch as much of what’s being said, and my questions for the speakers aren’t as good. If you’re also working a job at the same time and/or have your kids at home, you have even more distractions to deal with, hence less engagement with the conference. So it’s nice that you’re not having to give up your regular life to attend a conference, but then you’re at risk of being less engaged in the conference because your regular life is still going on and now there’s this virtual conference on top of it.

It’s a content buffet!

I can take in so much more of a conference’s content this way!! All of the sessions are recorded, so I can go back to them. But let’s be honest… though it’s great to see all the different work out there… this isn’t the main reason we all go to conferences! We go to network and make connections.

Connecting with other humans is not organic

No matter what the virtual platform is, you really have to opt-in to connect with other conference participants. There is no “bumping into someone in the line for coffee” in the virtual world. As participants, you need to go out of your comfort zone a little to find people to connect with. As organizers, you need to prioritize making it easy for conference participants to connect. The simplest way to do this is to have a list of participants and their email addresses (consent is needed for this, of course). Different platforms have ways to reach out to others one-on-one, such as the chat function in Zoom, or various virtual conference platforms have a “virtual lobby” where you can video call anyone who is online, or sometimes conferences will use Slack or Discord which both have public and private chat functions. There are virtual networking mixers, but unlike mixers in the real world, the virtual mixers need to be facilitated well for them to be effective.

We need to travel less to fight climate change

Maybe this should have been first… but it’s obvious, isn’t it? We need to make this shift to virtual conferences so that we travel less. My work pertains to improving water quality, and a big way to secure and manage water resources is to reduce climate change impacts. We need to fight climate change on every front and in every part of our lives, and traveling for conferences is one way we can make a lifestyle change to contribute to this fight. And, you know, all the other things too: eat less meat, drive less, get our government to stop subsidizing oil giants, divest from fossil fuels…. but I digress from my original topic!

With all that said… I’ll end with some tips for conference participants & organizers to make this all better… so that this becomes our new normal, but in a way that works for people.

How conference participants can optimize the virtual experience

  • Reach out to speakers you are interested in speaking with – find a time to chat for 5-15 minutes about their work and yours
  • Go out of your comfort zone and talk with random other conference attendees!
  • Get familiar with the platform early on, so that you can easily find people to connect with. Ask for technical support to test audio/video before a session.
  • Don’t plan to do many other things while attending the conference (as much as possible, I know many personal circumstances vary and this isn’t possible for everyone). E.g. tell your work when you are unavailable, arrange for someone else in your family to do the meals, etc.
  • Take the breaks in between sessions to get up and be away from your computer – virtual events are fatiguing!

How conference organizers can optimize the virtual experience

  • Prioritize people connecting with other people! Have an instructional video on how to use your chosen platform for connecting with people one-on-one (it makes a big difference to know what it looks like when someone receives an invitation to a call or chat) and/or allow email addresses to be shared.
  • Facilitate your networking event – online networking is not going to happen organically. E.g. use zoom breakout rooms for “speed networking”, have a trivia quiz show, do a go-around for introductions…. so many ideas out there!
  • Make sure there are breaks between sessions and encourage people to step away from their computer during the breaks.
  • Keep content to 4 hours or less per day.
  • Do record content in advance – there are always so many technical hiccups, this really helps!

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