The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

meeting industry new normalThe meeting industry old normal is over, and many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a new normal. [See Part 1 of this post for an introduction to this point of view.]

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker articleGianna Pomata, a professor of the history of medicine, “compared COVID-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—’not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.'” But the effects of these two plagues were remarkably different. (For example, the Black Death increased the power of workers because labor was scarce. In contrast, COVID-19 has forced millions of low-paid workers further into poverty.)

The meeting industry old normal

For centuries, the meeting industry has believed that the “best” and “most important” meetings are those conducted face-to-face. For most of human history, of course, this has been the only meeting option. Technology has slowly made inroads on this assumption, with the development of the telephone, the conference call, video chat, etc. Each new technology has taken away a little piece of the need to meet in person under certain favorable conditions.

The meeting industry new normal

In 2020, we have been forced to think differently. Historians regard the devastation of the bubonic plague as the end of the Middle Ages. Similarly, I think that COVID-19 will turn out to mark the beginning of the end of in-person meetings as the bread and butter of the meeting industry.

What will a new normal for the meeting industry look like? There’s no way we can know. Why? Because the future of meetings is no longer tied to the old paradigms we’ve assumed ever since the first official “conference” was held in 1666. (See my book Conferences That Work for the details.) There has been no new normal since the end of the thousand-year reign of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the forced rise of online meetings has moved us into uncharted and unpredictable territory.

The meeting industry is now, perhaps, in what the founder of VISA, Dee Hoc, called the Chaordic Age. In Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin framework, the meeting industry, formerly rooted in the obvious and complicated domains, has now moved into the complex domain. To solve problems in the complex domain, experiments need to be conducted in order to determine what to do.

One thing to learn from history and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the meeting industry? Don’t waste your time pining for or hoping for a static meeting industry new normal.

Next practices, not best practices

In other words, this is a time for next practices not best practices. Our industry needs to experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t.

This is proving to be difficult.

Even pre-pandemic, it was risky to try new meeting ideas, because our clients, understandably, want successful events. Taking risks increases the chances of failure.

Today, with the current collapse of in-person meetings, it’s harder to find the resources, margins, and willing clients we once had, in order to conduct experiments.

Yet our industry must find the resources, courage, and willingness, to experiment with new ways of convening and meeting formats that respond to these new challenges. We are all suffering now. Those who continue to shoehorn what they used to do into our current pandemic and future post-pandemic environment will continue to suffer.

I’m encouraged that our industry is indeed experimenting with a variety of new platforms, marketing and pricing models, and meeting formats. One of the most interesting and welcome developments is the rapid growth of new platforms (1, 2) that provide online incarnations of traditional conference in-person socials. I see them as game-changers for online events, replacing the hallway conversations that have always been an essential and undervalued component of traditional meetings.

We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is, if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.

The meeting industry new normal — Part 1

meeting industry new normal
Many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a meeting industry new normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our businesses. We want to believe that, at some point, in-person meetings like the ones we’ve held for decades will return.

Yes, there are a few world regions where cases of infection are currently very low. Such areas are already holding local in-person events, but safe inter-regional meetings are not possible. Even in these places, the meeting industry is not back to the “old” normal.

Some industry members have been trying mightily to claim that useful in-person meetings can occur during this pandemic if we take severe precautions, which include social distancing and face mask use. I have written earlier why I believe that the vast majority of meetings produced under these conditions, even if they are executed flawlessly from a safety standpoint, are not worth attending.

And, as we’ll see, there will not be a meeting industry new normal.

Let’s think this through.

An optimistic scenario for a meeting industry old normal

Suppose that everything goes as well as possible in the global fight against the coronavirus. Three fundamental things have to happen.

1) Scientists develop a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine.

If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine some time before the end of 2021 (remember, testing takes time).

2) The world mobilizes to provide the vaccine rapidly to a large proportion of the global population.

Optimistic forecasts say this could take place over 12 – 18 months. Presumably, in-person events during this period could become feasible for those who had received the vaccine. Of course, for this to happen safely, everyone involved in the event — attendees, staff, hospitality workers, and transportation personnel — must be vaccinated. Given that vaccine availability will be limited during the production ramp up, we should not assume that in-person events would quickly become feasible.

3) We overcome conspiracy-theory induced fear of vaccination.

We are in the golden age of anti-vaccine conspiracies. Creating herd immunity to COVID-19 requires overcoming such anti-scientific mindsets in a large majority of the world population. Currently we don’t know if this is even possible. Without herd immunity, leading to the virtual extinction of COVID-19, the pandemic will drag on for a long time.

Accepting the above implies that, at best, we will not be able to substantially resume old normal in-person meetings until some time in 2022.

That means we will have two or more years without substantive numbers of interregional in-person meetings.

What will happen in the world of meetings during these two or more years?

Obviously, we have already seen a sudden, unexpected, and massive shift to online events.

All of us, save perhaps the most introvert, bemoan and mourn the loss of meeting in person. We love to complain about the blandness and limitations of online meetings.

Yet, during my experiences of hundreds of online meetings over the last seven months, I’ve noticed some surprising and unexpected developments.

1) It’s possible to significantly improve the quality of online meetings from dreary webinar formats. This is starting to happen.

It turns out that, for online events it’s easy to adapt most of the in-person meeting and session participant-driven and participation-rich formats I and others have developed over the last two decades. Many meeting conveners, responding to the deadliness of watching talking heads for hours a day, are learning how to create interactive online events that maintain attendee interest, improve learning, and build connection between participants.

Over the next two years, the quality of online meeting process will improve. This will make online options more attractive to meeting conveners than they were pre-pandemic.

2) Clearly beneficial meetings that simply would not have been held formerly in-person are taking place online.

Specifically, there has been a large increase in online meetings that support the wants and needs of communities of practice. In the past, these groups, with members typically widely separated geographically, would meet occasionally in-person, if at all.

It’s much easier and attractive for busy workers to attend short, regular, and well-focused and designed online meetings of their professional community than to set aside several days once or twice a year for travel to an in-person event. As a result, I am seeing significant growth of regularly scheduled online meetings for communities. Some of these communities are brand new. Starting them by meeting online is less of a barrier than all the work required and risk involved creating new in-person conferences with unpredictable initial attendance.

Many of these meetings will continue post-pandemic. Some will replace former in-person meetings.

3) The meeting industry is investigating and planning to adopt hybrid meeting formats more than ever before.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic is (hopefully) over, everyone will be familiar with attending meetings online. Any post-pandemic meeting is, therefore, likely to have an online component, and will use one of the two core hybrid meeting formats. Whatever mix of traditional versus hub-and-spoke hybrid is adopted, we can be sure that there will be fewer old normal 100% in-person meetings.

Like what you read so far? Read Part 2 of this post, where I conclude my explanation why there will not be a meeting industry new normal.

COVID-19, in-person meetings, and wishful thinking

COVID-19 and in-person meetings This is not an easy post to write. The pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter.

In order to overcome the many significant challenges created by the coronavirus, the meeting industry has made valiant efforts to rethink in-person meetings. The goal? To bring people safely into the same physical space, so they can meet as they did before the pandemic.

Sadly, I believe such efforts are based on wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking

It’s nice to imagine that, if we can figure out how to bring people safely together in person in a COVID-19 world, our meetings will be the same as they were pre-pandemic.

But until we create and broadly administer an effective vaccine (or we suffer the disastrous and massive illnesses and deaths that will occur obtaining herd immunity) they can’t be the same meetings.

Moreover, there are two reasons why there is no persuasive use case for holding almost any in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Why in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment

By now we know that in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, people near each other must:

  • Wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth; and
  • Stay six or more feet apart.

Here’s what that looks like at an in-person meeting.

COVID-19 and in-person meetings

Let’s set aside the significant issues of whether attendees can:

  • safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely;
  • move around an event venue while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • be fed safely.

While difficult, I think we can do all these things. Well-meaning meeting industry professionals are understandingly desperate to bring back in-person meetings from oblivion. But they assume that if they can solve the above challenges, an effective meeting can occur.

But good meetings are not about listening to broadcast content

In doing so, they have reverted to the old, deeply embedded notion that, fundamentally, in-person meetings are about listening to broadcast content. Since the rise of online, broadcast-format content can be delivered far more inexpensively, efficiently, and conveniently online than at in-person events.

As I have explained repeatedly in my books and on this blog (e.g., here) assuming that conferences are fundamentally about lectures ignores what is truly useful about good meetings.

Among other things, good meetings must provide personal and useful connection around relevant content.

Masks and six or more feet separation ≠ connection

Unfortunately, you cannot connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet away!Why? Because we are exquisitely sensitive to body language and facial expressions. With everyone social distanced and faces half hidden, the normal cues of connection, such as microexpressions and subtle shifts in posture, are hard to read. In my experience, it can often be easier to read emotions and responses in video chats than socially distanced situations.

New tools for online connection

In addition, new online social platforms (two examples) provide easy-to-learn and fluid video chat alternatives to the in-person breaks, meals, and socials that are so important at in-person meetings. Do these tools supply as good connection and engagement as pre-pandemic, in person meetings? Not quite. (Though they supply some useful advantages over in-person meetings, they can’t replace friendly hugs!) Are they good enough? In my judgment, yes! In the last few months, I’ve built and strengthened as many relationships at online meetings as I used to in-person.

A depressing conclusion

Right now, the learning, connection, and engagement possible at well-designed online meetings is at least comparable — and in some ways superior — to what’s feasible at in-person meetings that are safe to attend in a COVID-19 world.

Now add the significant barriers and costs to holding in-person meetings during this pandemic. The challenges of providing safe travel, accommodations, venue traffic patterns, and food & beverage all have to be overcome. Even if credible solutions are developed (as I believe they can be in many cases), potential attendees must still be persuaded that the solutions are safe, and your meeting can be trusted to implement them perfectly.

My own example

I’ll share my own example, as a 68 year old who, pre-pandemic, facilitated and participated in around fifty meetings each year. Since COVID-19 awareness reached the U.S. five months ago, I have barely been inside a building besides my home. I have only attended one in-person meeting during this time: a local school board meeting held in a large gymnasium with the fifteen or so masked attendees arranged in a large circle of chairs in the center of the room. I am not willing to fly anywhere, except in the case of an emergency. Everyone has their own assessment of risks taken during these times. But I will simply not risk my health to attend an in-person meeting at present. Especially when online meetings provide a reasonable substitute. I don’t think I’m alone in this determination.

I do not think that the research initiated and venue upgrades made are a waste of time, money, and effort. There may well be a time when an effective vaccine exists and is being introduced. At this point, in-person meetings may be able to start up again without the critical barriers introduced by universal masks and social distancing.

Until then, I don’t see a credible use case for holding significant in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Image attribution: Erin Schaff/New York Times

How eventprofs are feeling during COVID-19

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19How are eventprofs feeling during COVID-19? Over the past few weeks in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I’ve listened to hundreds of people share their feelings at online meetings I’ve led and joined. Though everyone’s response has been unique, three distinct sets of emotions stand out. Here they are, from the perspective of the many meeting professionals I’ve heard.

Anxious

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19I estimate that about 85% of the event professionals I listened to shared feelings of fear, compared to about 65% of the general population. The most common description I heard was anxiety/anxious. But strong expressions like “scared”, “terrified”, and “very worried” were more common than I expected (~5-10%).

This is hardly surprising. Every event professional who spoke had lost essentially all their short-term work and event-related income. In some cases, they were attempting under extreme time and resource pressures to move meetings online. The meeting industry has been struggling for years to understand and develop online meeting models that provide traditional face-to-face meetings’ desired outcomes and are both technically and financially feasible. To have to pivot to such modalities overnight — assuming they are even feasible for the specific meetings in question — is having a huge impact on every aspect of the meeting industry.

When your present circumstances and potential future dramatically change, feeling fear is a normal and healthy response. And fear of anticipated upsetting change leads to the next set of emotions…

Unsettled

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19About half of event professionals, and slightly less of everyone I heard, shared feeling unsettled. “Unsettled” is a mixture of fear and sadness we may feel when we experience the world as less predictable and our sense of control or comfort with our circumstances reduced.

Feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos, as illuminated by Virginia Satir‘s change model.

Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change. An old status quo (the event industry before COVID-19) is disrupted by a foreign element (the COVID-19 pandemic). Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event (in this case, for example, perhaps the development of a vaccine) allows a period transition away from chaos towards a new status quo (hopefully, a post-pandemic world).

Hopeful

eventprofs feeling during COVID-19I was surprised that about half of the general populace mentioned feeling some form of hopefulness about their current situation. Event professionals were far less likely to share feeling this way. This discrepancy is probably because some of the non-event industry people were retirees, and others have escaped significant professional impact.

It makes sense to me that meeting professionals aren’t feeling especially hopeful right now. If/when the chaos and destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we don’t know how much delay there will be before face-to-face events are scheduled and run. And we also don’t know how our industry will change for good, and what our new roles in it will be.

My experience

These days, I feel all the above emotions (though not all at the same time 😀). Clients have cancelled all my short-term design and facilitation work. I love to facilitate connection, and feel sad at not having face-to-face interactions with clients and meeting participants. I am anxious about the health of my family and myself, and unsettled about an unknown future for my personal and professional life.

Yet I am also hopeful.

I have reached out to connect in real-time online. Although I have created and facilitated hundred of online meetings over the last ten years (from the days when video chat was a buggy and bandwidth-limited experience) I am continuing to learn more about facilitating connection around relevant content online. And I’m thinking about how online meetings can be significantly improved, using technology to create better implementations of the many in-person participation techniques I’ve developed and championed for decades.

What’s your experience of how eventprofs are feeling during COVID-19?

Please share your own experience and what you’ve heard from others in the comments below!

How to support a community online during covid-19

support a community online during covid-19
How can you support a community online during covid-19? Over the last few weeks I’ve run numerous online Zoom meetings for support groups and local, social, and professional communities. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about what makes these meetings most useful for participants.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned (so far) here.

Key takeaways

• Breakout room functionality is essential for your online meeting platform.
Small group conversations are the core components of successful online meetings. (If your meeting only involves people broadcasting information, replace it with email!) Unless you have six or fewer people in your meeting, you need to be able to efficiently split participants into smaller groups when needed — typically every 5 – 10 minutes — for effective conversations to occur. That’s what online breakout rooms are for. Use them!

• It’s important to define group agreements about participant behavior at the start.
For well over a decade, I have been asking participants to agree to six agreements at the start of meetings. Such agreements can be quickly explained, and significantly improve intimacy and safety. They are easily adapted to online meetings. (For example, I cover when and how the freedom to ask questions can be used when the entire group is together online.)

• Use process that allows everyone time to share.
You’ve probably attended a large group “discussion” with poor or non-existent facilitation, and noticed that a few people monopolize most of the resulting “conversation”. Before people divide into small breakout groups, state the issue or question they’ll be discussing, ask someone to volunteer as timekeeper, and prescribe an appropriate duration for each participant’s sharing.

• People want and need to share how they’re feeling up front.
I’ve found that pretty much everything important that happens at these meetings springs from people safely sharing at the start how they feel. They learn that they’re not alone. I ask participants to come up with one to three feeling words that describe how they’re feeling: either right now, or generally, or about their personal or professional situation. They write these words large with a fine-point permanent marker on one or more pieces of paper and share them, one person at a time, on camera or verbally. (Elaborations come later.)

• Sharing what’s working is validating, interesting, and useful.
In my experience, everyone has made some changes in their personal and/or professional lives that are helping them deal with the impact of the coronavirus. Sharing these in small groups is a supportive process that’s well worth doing.

• Consultations are a powerful small group activity.
Set aside time, if available, for a few group consults on individual challenges. Ask for volunteers. They will receive support, and their small group of impromptu consultants will feel good about helping.

• Don’t forget to provide movement breaks.
Occasional movement breaks are even more important for online than face-to-face meetings. Participants can feel trapped sitting in front of their camera. Schedule a break every 45 minutes.

• Check before moving on to a new topic.
If you are on video, ask for an affirmative sign (thumbs up or down), or use Roman voting. On audio, ask “who has more to contribute on this?”

• Provide a set of tips and conventions for the online platform you’re using.
Here are mine for Zoom.

• Schedule time for feedback and/or a retrospective.
Key questions: What was this like? Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

Preparing for your community online meeting

Key information should be distributed appropriately well in advance of the meeting. Include it in a single online document, and create a descriptive URL shortened link (e.g. bit.ly/ephhfeelings).  I suggest you share a short promo for your why? for the meeting, followed by this “complete details” link. Because many people don’t read the details until shortly before the meeting, resend your share closer to the time of the event.

I also like to display the link printed on a card visible in my video feed, so folks who have joined the meeting can catch up. Don’t rely on a chat window for this, since latecomers will not see earlier chat comments in most meeting platforms.

Here’s a sample of what you might want to include in your pre-meeting document for a 90-minute online meeting. My comments are in curly brackets {}.


Sample pre-meeting information document for community online meeting

[Date and start/end time of meeting]
[Time when host will open online meeting] {I suggest opening the meeting platform at least 15 minutes before the meeting starts. This allows people, especially first-time users, time to get online}
Meeting starts promptly at [start time]

Please check out the following three links before the meeting:

Why you should attend [meeting title] {audience, rationale, agenda, etc.}
How to join this meeting {complete instructions on how to go online}
[Meeting platform] tips {make it easy for novices to participate — here are my Zoom tips}

Preparation

Please have a few blank pieces of paper and a dark color fine point permanent marker (several, if you are artistically inclined). Before we start, write large on one piece of paper where you’re calling from. On another, please write (or illustrate) one to three feeling words that describe how you’re feeling: either right now, generally, about your personal or professional situation — you choose.

Schedule

We will open the meeting at 11:45 am EDT.

Please join us before 12:00 if at all possible, so we can start together promptly. We’ll try to bring you up to speed if you join late, but it may be difficult if there are many already online and it will be disruptive for them.

Exact timings will depend on how many of us are present. This plan may change according to expressed needs. All times EDT.

11:45: Online meeting opens.

11:45 – 12:00: Join meeting.

12:00: Meeting starts. Housekeeping. Where are you from?

12:05: Sharing our feeling words together.

12:10: Preparing for sharing what’s going on for you.

12:15: Sharing what’s going on for you in online breakout room.

12:25: Group recap of commonalities and illustrative stories.

12:35: Preparing for sharing what’s helped.

12:40: Sharing what’s helped in online breakout room.

12:50: Break — get up and move around! {Share your screen with a countdown timer displayed so people know when to return.}

12:55: Group recap of what’s helped.

13:05 Preparing for individual consulting. {Ask for a few volunteers.}

13:10: Individual consulting in online breakout room.

13:25: Group recap of individual lessons learned.

13:35: Group feedback on session. Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

13:55: Thanks and closing.

14:00: Online meeting ends.


Support your community online during covid-19

Most online meetings do a poor job of maintaining participants’ attention. I’ve found that starting with a quick opportunity for people to share how they’re feeling effectively captures attendees’ interest. And using a platform and process that allows everyone time to share what’s important keeps participants engaged. You might get feedback like this…

“I just wanted to reach out again and thank you for the call today. What an incredible conversation spanning such significant geographical areas. The perspective we gain from discussion like today is priceless. I just got off of another call with [another community] and the vibe was completely different. While everyone was respectful, everyone’s overall sense of well being was generally pretty positive. And that’s where they wanted to keep it.”
—A participant’s message to me after an online meeting last week

Please try out these ideas! And share your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below.

The meeting industry coronavirus silver lining

coronavirus silver liningDespite the terrible impacts of the coronavirus on the meeting industry, there’s a silver lining.

Hear me out!

There’s no question times are hard. The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated lives and businesses globally, and we don’t know how much worse things will get. The meeting industry is reeling under a wave of cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty. All my short-term facilitation and on-site training engagements have been cancelled — and I’m lucky in comparison with colleagues who are struggling with the significant financial impact of the loss of work, deposits, and income that a few months ago looked secure.

Consequently, in the short term, the situation looks bleak. In addition, no one knows what “short term” means right now.

In the long term…

Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.

Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.

So what’s the coronavirus silver lining?

I believe there are three silver linings that are long-term positives for the meeting industry.

1—Online meetings will replace many broadcast-style meeting sessions

The dramatic cancellation of face-to-face events has led to an immediate focus on replacing them, when possible, with online meetings. This focus is welcome, because online technology can and should replace the lecture-centric components of conventional meetings.

2—Online meetings process technology will improve

In my opinion, we can significantly improve online meetings process technology. The pressure to find a replacement for face-to-face meetings may speed the development of technology process for connection that current platforms lack.

All major online platforms support broadcast-style meetings. In small meetings, any meeting participant can become the broadcaster of the moment by speaking. As in face-to-face large meetings, this speaker-switching mechanism doesn’t work with a large group without central control over who, or how many, can speak at any moment.

What online meeting technology currently ignores or implements poorly is participant-initiated small group voice or video chat discussions of the kind that happen at face-to-face meetings. Although some platforms implement breakout groups, they are generally limited in number, and platform facilitators initiate them rather than participants on an as-needed basis.

Hopefully, a pressing demand for virtual meetings that can provide the spontaneous interaction and connection possible at face-to-face meetings will spur development of connection-centric online meeting technology features.

3—We will better understand the true value of face-to-face meetings

Right now, the human race is responding to the short-term devastating effects of coronavirus by implementing social distance. We are rapidly curtailing the ways we get together for entertainment, education, and the thousands of other reasons we meet.

But human beings do not thrive long-term on social distance; rather, we want and need social existence. Over time, restricting meetings to online modalities will make us aware of what they lack: personal connection and engagement around pertinent content. Consequently, the meeting industry will better understand the unique possibilities that face-to-face events can provide. And, perhaps, we will become increasingly open to the value of human process technologies that allow meetings to become what participants actually want and need.

Can you think of other long-term silver linings for the meeting industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Share them in the comments below.

Image attribution: Flickr user dewet