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Oh how we miss the Global Conference!

Written by Peter Ward, 28 July 2021

‘Virtual meetings are just not the same’, ‘I really am Zoomed out!’, ‘can’t wait for human contact and getting to be in one room again’. But maybe ‘absence is making the heart grow fonder’ and we are forgetting about the downsides of a physical conference: interruption to our normal schedules and family life, endless speaker sessions, not always as focused as they might be and so on. So before we slide back into an annual ritual, let’s take stock on the value created through both physical and virtual conferences.

This is not about getting rid of the annual leadership conference, but the thinking might equally be flawed if we discount the advantages of the virtual conference. I scratched the surface of this topic in a previous article (There’s a million ways to go, 20 May 2021) but as we start to think about opening up borders (even though it might be some distance away) let’s have a go at capturing the features of both the physical and virtual.

The physical gathering Our business has, for the past twenty one years, been about supporting organisations through a period of strategic transformation. The long term thinking of the organisations with which we have worked have led to the design and execution of global meetings designed to bring together their leadership teams. We have seen the development of shared cultures that may have started from a pretty low level (I recall one conference where colleagues were meeting for the first time and admitting that the only time they had seen each other was at trade conventions where they were manning their own competing stands!) but have developed over time into high performing, cohesive units based on trusted relationships that have grown mainly from, or at least facilitated by, the annual get together. Seeing relationships build over time and the warmth exuded by a group that is comfortable in each other’s company and mapping this collaborative culture onto the performance metrics is, in itself, a case for the physical.

I don’t need to be reminded of the power of a commitment to meet annually, provided that the purpose of doing so is clear to all. And committing to meet whether the business is performing, or not. If the desire is to build a shared culture then the conference becomes an essential component for ongoing engagement and needs to be sustained through poor times as well as good. So setting a standard that can be maintained is important. Left to itself, the conference can create a life of its own, getting grander and grander each year as the conference delivery team seeks to outdo the previous year, a particular issue where location moves each year with a new local team responsible for running the conference.

But now we have been forced by circumstance to substitute this activity with a virtual alternative and I wonder whether this will make us look at the annual conference differently?

  • Have we looked at the actual cost of getting everyone together and can we be certain that we are getting value from the investment? The corporate world has a tendency to split the travel cost from the conference costs so the ‘hit’ is rarely transparent.

  • Have we considered the wear and tear on our executives having to travel across time zones for the (say) three day event? I am reminded of a significant global enterprise that convenes an annual week of conference and ‘fringe’ meetings and it is seen as a mark of ‘belonging’ to be invited. But it is also seen as a warning to many high performers that it might be a bridge too far for those looking for more balance in their lives.

  • Have we considered the learning potential of the components designed into the conference and the impact that the event will have on post conference messaging and behaviours?

  • Having accepted that there will be an element of status from being invited, have we ensured that this valuable cadre are going to feel that they are valued as a result of the programme designed for the conference?

The virtual alternative Let’s be honest, without the pandemic we would not be looking at this option with any great enthusiasm. But ‘needs must’, and we found ourselves re-engineering physical meetings into a virtual equivalents. And from the first virtual conference, we got an interesting result. Participants, when asked to rate the 2020 event (virtual) with the 2019 event (physical) scored 2020 higher (but only slightly) than 2019.

There was a realisation that it might be possible to achieve set conference objectives without a physical presence. Not a case of taking the format of a physical conference and putting it on-line with people sat in front of their screens for days at a time. The design had to take account of:

  • The need to engage, not merely communicate. Getting people involved before, during and after the event.

  • Attention spans, leading to shorter presentations and higher levels of interaction

  • The impact of time zones, so working through a core session in one part of the day accessible to all (early but not too early for some, and late, but not too late for others).

  • Encouraging participation through small discussion groups and even virtual networking to help people discover others in their organisation. If it works for dating, it can surely work for corporate relationships!

  • Supporting the virtual with tangible follow through: committed engagement plans, documented actions and a record of proceedings

There was also acknowledgment that there is a cost benefit to a virtual meeting. It is possible to engage a senior audience without the travel and disruption to calendars that would otherwise occur.

And finally, some things have worked out better for being virtual:

  • The impact of key speakers. We have reports of people feeling that guest speakers were speaking to them personally, such is the power of a ‘pinned’ speaker on a laptop, rather than a remote figure on a stage.

  • Participation is encouraged. Virtual can democratise a meeting. It is easier to contribute when everyone is just a two inch square on a computer screen! And it is possible to involve more people. Without the expense attached to increased numbers, it may be beneficial to involve more people in a conference. Some have used the virtual event as an opportunity to bring high potentials into the conference.

  • Flexibility is enhanced. There will always be last minute changes in attendees and changing a participant list is just a matter of a key stroke (or strokes) rather than the logistical nightmare of changing flights, hotels and seating arrangements. It is also easier to bring some people in for some of the sessions.

  • Punctuality has improved. Getting people in and out of a conference hall does require time allowance for stragglers. Not the case in getting groups back from a virtual break out discussion.

  • The ease of recognising success and celebrating best practice. Awards can work virtually as well as from the stage.

  • Scheduling is easier. Getting a meeting in the diary is a matter of days and weeks as opposed to weeks and months (or even months and years!) It is easier to be available too, without having to plan for the travel time for each meeting.

Does this mean that the face to face conference is dead? Absolutely not. But does it need to adapt so we get better value for the investment in face to face?

The future I wish (don’t we all?) I could see the end to the pandemic and a return to being able to meet people from all over the world in furthering an organisation’s long term agenda. I fear this may be some time away. Even as the pandemic comes under some sort of control, travel does not look as though it will be liberalised for all of our global citizens. So, if there is a need to get together, it is likely to need to embrace the virtual option, rather than risk the fall out of a continued separate existence for our geographically dispersed leadership.

But longer term? There has to be a case for examining each option and maybe even blending the two. And here I don’t mean a hybrid with some in the room and some joining by video conference. It is not much fun outside the room without the benefit of the informal interactions of those in the room and would contain a real sense of exclusion when conferences need to be inclusive to be successful. I mean a blend:

  • Careful definition of objectives and expected outcomes

  • Consideration of those items that could be imparted through a video call, rather than sitting in a conference room consuming the corporate wisdom conveyed through PowerPoint.

  • Focus for the physical get together to handle those topics and activities that can be achieved more effectively together, for example: - Problem solving - Developing positive and collaborative behaviours - Exploring best practice, visiting sites, customers and so on

I wonder also whether, with a growing focus on environmental impact, we will be taking into account the international travel required to be able to meet at a global conference.

Who knows, there could be two longer term outcomes from an overhaul of ‘the annual conference’.

  1. More cost effective and environmentally friendly meetings. Perhaps a physical meeting every other year?

  2. More frequent get togethers for our senior teams. No reason not to get together twice a year for a shorter, focused programme run virtually.

A growing theme as we look to a new way of operating post pandemic: there is no single answer. But ignoring the benefits of virtual to return to physical meetings, may miss a significant opportunity to improve engagement at a relatively lower cost. And, I would have to add, ignoring the power of the physical and substituting with a virtual event may miss the opportunities that can only be achieved face to face.

So when we are planning the next event, having determined why we are meeting and determined the value we expect it to deliver, an additional question: what is the best method of delivery? Virtual, physical or a bit of both?

Peter Ward

Chairman and Co-Founder of Telos Partners


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