Toward a New Normal? Rethinking the place of face to face meetings in a challenged world: options and opportunities

Toward a New Normal?

Illustration courtesy of Alfredo Carlo, HOUSATONIC | We Make It Easy.

Sometimes something happens, and the rest is history. A hundred years ago the invention of refrigeration finished off the wholesale ice trade. Five hundred years ago the discovery of the humble chilli transformed global cuisine for ever.

In 2020 the double whammy of first climate concerns and now COVID-19 precautions may transform the global meetings industry.

The perfect storm of coronavirus worry, plus cost concerns as the global economy wobbles, is adding power to the earlier desire to check the carbon footprint of many meetings; events that increasing numbers of people feel guilty attending, even when they are for 'worthy work'.

In early March I researched the state of latest thinking: through reading (literature and online posts); conversations (with colleague and other experts); and a pulse survey shared through my networks and completed by 80 people from around the world and in a range of sectors.

What did I discover?

Excitement and anxiety. Best practice and new ideas. A desire to speed the adoption of what is known and boost innovation in what can be imagined.

When thinking how far it is possible to shift meetings to online formats, there are some clear principles and pointers as well as things to prototype and also ponder. Here is a checklist of ideas to guide your DEE-cisions:

DO: what is clear

  • Think of the meeting purpose and participants in deciding the best approach (some tasks and groups are easier to work virtually than others).
  • Prior preparation is key (including pre-surveys, pre-reading, technology checks, rehearsals). Even more than a face to face meeting, do think of the whole process: the activity before and after, as well as experience of the event itself (maybe using the 12P list as useful reminders).
  • Make the most of Zoom (and zoom rooms) – the favourite technology at the moment (though there is scope to keep things simple with conference calls and asynchronous working methods too such as hash tags, shared documents and even reply all email!).
  • Spreading 'chunks' of a conference over a number of days can help maximise attendance in the ‘sweet spot’ between a number of time zones, and can also help attention by keeping each days working effort to only a few hours.
  • Make the most of the ability of colleagues in different time zones to work/reflect whilst others are asleep, sort of passing the baton around.
  • Don’t assume that connecting hubs of colleagues in a meeting room is the best way to work (sometimes everyone being individually connected works better).
  • Remember online etiquette in establishing and upholding 'ground rules' (e.g. sit in a quiet spot, use mute, use video, don’t multitask, don’t assume everyone has the kit or bandwidth - help with access issues, make sure there is a break every 75-90 minute 'chunk').

Experiment: what to try out

  • Try at least two hosts for an online conference (with one focusing solely on the relationship/social/attention aspect – including setting tone, ‘icebreakers’, energisers, interaction, entertainment). Think of the host roles: the 'engineer' (the logistics, technology lead), the 'expert' or 'executive' (the content lead) - but also the 'engager', guiding the openness and energy of the session. This technology/content/process division makes for both a more slick experience, but also a more intimate and interactive one.
  • Work out the best ‘wrap around’ technologies and platforms (eg mentimeter and WhatsApp on smartphone), so only one technology is on a computer or tablet screen at any point in time. This allows making the most of other ‘best of breed’ apps and platforms, and not just the bundled features in Zoom, for example.
  • Making full use of analogue and digital graphic recording of virtual sessions. Also, consider harnessing photographic/video editing between days of work, to create mini 'show reels' of what has gone before and latest thinking from submitted media. And find ways to process the thinking of the ideas between sessions to help follow and momentum. For example, not relying on screen recordings, but summarising what has been said in a slide deck.
  • Practice the technologies being proposed in a max-mix design team. This will help discover their limitations and avoid 'fantasy' planning through over zealous expectations and organiser aspirations.

EXPLORE: what to think about some more

  • How might it be possible to develop online activities to mimic the random collisions and social activities of f2f meeting - the things that colleagues value at face to face meetings so much? When setting up 'fringe' and informal online activities can you give participants a choice of how they connect - Skype, phone, FaceTime, Zoom etc?
  • How to encourage contact between participants after hearing talks or between sessions - for example by providing contact details and various online working spaces (with full consent, GDPR-style).
  • Are there are any new emerging platforms beyond Zoom that might nudge it from its #1 spot? In particular, what Smartphone and 3/4/5G based systems might help overcome some access issues to those without computers and wifi.
  • What might become possible with realtime translation, building on the current strengths of apps like Google Translate, to help international gatherings where often english is often a minority 'mother tongue', but the dominant language for the event.
  • Make sure you invest time to you keep scanning and networking for new ideas to try (see section three here, for example).
  • What are the limits to robust video connectivity for large groups on different systems. How big can you go?
  • Whilst some sorts of meetings are easier to re-imagine than others, can you continue to think about ways to do trade shows and field trips, for example, in radically different ways?
  • What sorts of meeting seem hard to replicate virtually and that are still worthy of the investment in travel? What is the refined view on the unique place of face to face meetings?

What might you add to this checklist?

In sum, what are your new options? Can you see your next step in what may become the new normal in organising meetings?


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