Lessons learned from online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic

lessons online meetings COVID-19The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) has published some useful lessons learned from organizing six online scientific meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is my summary of what I think are the most interesting findings, plus some commentary. All quotes are from the article Virtual Growing Pains: Initial Lessons Learned from Organizing Virtual Workshops, Summits, Conferences, and Networking Events during a Global Pandemic in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin. Check it out for full details!

Online meetings improve access and attendance

Clearly, online conferences can make it easier for people to attend who might otherwise not be able to do so:

…participation [at in-person meetings] can favor more privileged scientists (e.g., well-funded, connected, established) while excluding talented but less privileged scientists who may not have available funds or flexible schedules to overcome barriers such as financial resources, travel time, disabilities (De Picker 2020), dependent care responsibilities (Calisi and A Working Group of Mothers in Science 2018), or visa acquisition (Matthews et al. 2020)

Conferences are an important learning and support resource for early career scientists. Online events make it easier for them to attend.

“…a hiatus from scientific meetings would also have come at a cost, especially for early career researchers (ECRs) who rely on scientific meetings to share their work, find career opportunities, and establish a peer cohort that provides emotional, mental, and personal support in addition to professional support.”

But barriers to attending online conferences still remain:

“…the online format removed potential barriers and likely increased participation by peers unable to participate in previous years. Still, some barriers remained, and new barriers arose, such as access to a reliable computer and internet connection, time zone management for conferences with a globally distributed audience, the unexpected energy demand of sustaining online attentiveness (the newly coined term “Zoom fatigue”), and finding time for dependent care as many schools, nurseries, eldercare services, and similar facilities enacted restrictions or limited services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Nevertheless, attendance at three of the meetings was significantly higher than when previously held in-person. (The three other meetings did not share historical attendance data.)

“Attendance increased 50% over previous successful conferences with a significant portion (40%) of first-time symposium attendees.”

“The in-person meeting was space-limited to 65 participants. The virtual format opened registration to anyone. In total, 205 people had registered to access the workshop materials, with 150 individuals and 110 individuals consistently joining on days 1 and 2, respectively. Instead of the original limit of 15 in-person graduate students, the conference welcomed over 50 graduate and undergraduate students.”

“Initially planned as an in-person, ~ 50-person workshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A., the inaugural workshop took place 18–20 August 2020, virtually over Zoom … In total, 1038 registrants from over 30 countries participated, with individual session attendance in the low-hundreds.”

The full article also describes an overall increase in diversity of attendees at their online conferences. However, expanding presenter diversity wasn’t successful at one of the meetings.

Online platforms and tools used

The six meetings used a variety of online platforms and tools: Zoom (used in every meeting), webex, Voice Thread (used for poster sessions), SlackWhova, Poll Everywhere, QUBES Hub (an online community for STEM activities), Slido, and Google Forms. Attendees were largely happy with these tools, with only a few problems reported. Read the article for details.

There was a general consensus that socializing opportunities online were inferior to in-person meetings. This was despite the use of backchannel communication platforms such as Slack during several of the events.

“Communication software, such as Slack, could not really replace the casual “hallway chats,” but did provide more complete documentation of conversations and a forum that could continue following the meeting.”

None of the meetings used one of the online social platforms I’ve described on this blog (1, 2, 3). I suspect that incorporating such platforms into future conferences would provide a better social experience for participants.

Online program fatigue

Several meetings reported their attendees experienced fatigue:

“Aside from programmatic needs, the community learned that mental and physical fatigue are inherent to both in-person and virtual formats. Much like an in-person, session-packed meeting, virtual meetings occurring for long hours, across multiple time zones can drain energy. Although a virtual format may more easily afford attendees the chance to “log-off” from the meeting, building in diverse events, such as social hours, breakout or working group sessions, and mixed presentation formats are crucial to prevent attendees from logging off too often or feeling drained by a meeting.”

I’ve written about how frequent scheduled breaks will help minimize online meeting fatigue. Some of the meetings reported that distributing their typical in-person program over a longer time period (e.g., a few hours per day over several days) helped reduce fatigue and maintain attendance.

Closed-captioning content

Three of the meetings added closed-captioning to pre-recorded talks, and attendees found this helpful. One of the report’s conclusions:

“Closed-captioning content benefits many, especially non-native English speakers.”

When online meetings use prerecorded videos, adding closed-captioning is an easy way to improve the viewing experience. Hopefully, real-time closed-captioning will become more accurate, affordable, and common in the future.

Hybrid meetings in the future

Several of the meeting groups expect to hold hybrid meetings in the future:

“GLEON is increasingly aware of barriers for meeting attendance, despite a long running sponsorship program. Hence, some form of a hybrid style meeting may offer the best way forward.”

“Hybrid models tailored to a specific society’s resources and needs could incorporate components of both the in-person and virtual experiences. One variant could be offering both the in-person and virtual components simultaneously, allowing attendees, who are not able or willing to travel, to partake in in-person sessions and panels through video-conferencing software. Here, an alternative hybrid form could consist of regional in-person meetings, to minimize travel, while still being connected to other regional meeting hubs via a shared online program. Another hybrid model could be re-envisioning the in-person conference altogether, where traditional presentation and poster sessions are conducted virtually, and a companion, asynchronous in-person conference parallels the themes of the virtual meeting but with a focus on working groups, networking, and research products.”

Although many attendees hoped to return to in-person conferences, they generally agreed that online meetings have shown their value and will remain an important option for future meetings.

Conclusion

Some of these insights may be familiar, some less so. Let’s thank the numerous scientists who took time to share lessons learned from holding online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic! Such information is helpful to everyone working to make meetings better.

Image attribution: composite image created from images in Volume 30, Issue 1 of the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin.

Hub and spoke meetings

Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…

…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?

A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.hub spoke meetingHub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.

A terminology reminder
In-person meeting: participants are physically together.
Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams.
Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.

The benefits of hub and spoke

Increased learning, interaction, and connection

If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.

Flexibility

Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.

In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.

You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]

Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.

Convenience

As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.

Hub and spoke variants

Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:

In-person hub and in-person pods

This is the classic hybrid hub and spoke format that we used 10 years ago at Event Camp Twin Cities (ECTC).

Producing Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.

There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.

Online pods

My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.

Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…

hub spoke meeting

I commented about the recursive nature of this…

…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.

Our pod experience

The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.

It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.

Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.

The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)

In-person and online pods

Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!

Conclusion

I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.

It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.

What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

No, I do not hate in-person meetings

hate in-person meetingsI’d like to be clear that I don’t hate in-person meetings, despite what some have been posting recently on a Facebook group for meeting professionals:

“Often wondered why so many on this feed hate live events.”

“It is my opinion that this group does not support any in-person meetings or gatherings of any kind…”

” I am sad to see so many industry giants verbally destroying our industry – apparently with glee.”

Let’s explore what’s causing opinions and feelings like this in the meeting industry.

The tension in the meeting industry

As I’ve said before, the pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating, especially for the meeting industry. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter. Many meeting professionals have lost their jobs, and are understandably desperate for our industry to recover. We are all looking for ways for in-person meetings to return.

Unfortunately, I and many others believe there is a strong case to make against currently holding in-person meetings. Ethically, despite the massive personal and financial consequences, we should not be submitting people to often-unadvertised, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions so we can go back to work.

I’ve been posting bits and pieces of the case against currently holding in-person meetings on various online platforms, and decided it was time to bring everything together in one (long for me) post. I hope many meeting industry professionals will read this and respond. As always, all points of view are welcome, especially those that can share how to mitigate any of the following concerns.

The strong case against holding in-person meetings right now

Here are four important reasons why I think we shouldn’t be holding “large” in-person meetings right now. (Obviously, “large” is a moving target. Checking Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool as I write this, a national US event with 500 people is extremely likely (>95%) to have one or more COVID-19 positive individuals present.)

1) Posted safety protocols are not followed

Seven months ago, I explained why, in my opinion, in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment. I assumed that in-person meetings could, in principle, be held safely if everyone:

  • meticulously observed social distancing and masking;
  • could safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely; move around event venues while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • eat and drink safely.

Even if one could meet these difficult conditions, I questioned the value of such in-person meetings. Why? Because meetings are fundamentally about connection around relevant content. And it’s impossible to connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet apart!

In addition, there’s ample evidence that some people won’t follow declared safety protocols. Since I wrote that post, we have heard reports and seen examples of in-person meetings where attendees and staff are not reliably social distancing, and/or aren’t wearing masks properly or at all.

Orlando, Florida, OCCC Together Again Expo, July 2020

This is most likely to happen during socials and meals, where masks have to be temporarily removed. It’s understandably hard for attendees to resist our lifetime habit of moving close to socialize.

2) We perform hygiene theater—but please don’t ask us about our ventilation systems

Many venues trumpet their comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning protocols. Extensive cleaning was prudent during the early pandemic months, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But we now know that extensive cleaning is hygiene theater (1, 2); the primary transmission vector for COVID-19 is airborne.

A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature begins: “Catching the virus from surfaces is rare” and goes on to say “efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers”.

I haven’t heard of any venues that have publicly explained how their ventilation systems minimize or eliminate the chance of airborne COVID-19 transmission!

Why? Because it’s a complicated, and potentially incredibly expensive issue to safely mitigate. And venues are reluctant or unable to do the custom engineering and, perhaps, costly upgrades necessary to ensure that the air everyone breaths onsite is HEPA filtered fast enough to keep any COVID positive attendee shedding at a safe level.

Adequate ventilation of indoor spaces where people have removed masks for eating or drinking is barely mentioned in governmental gathering requirements (like this one, dated March 3, 2021, from the State of Nevada). These guidelines assume that whatever ventilation existed pre-COVID is adequate under the circumstances, as long as all parties are socially distanced. We know from research that there are locales — e.g. dining rooms with low ceilings or inadequate ventilation — where this is not a safe practice, since it’s possible for COVID droplets to travel far further than 6 feet.

In case you are interested, current recommendations are for MERV 13 filtering throughout the venue. Does your venue offer this?

P.S. I expect there are venues that have done this work. Do you know of venues that have done the engineering to certify a measurable level of safe air on their premises? If so, please share in the comments! We should know about these conscientious organizations.

3) Inadequate or no pre-, during-, or post- COVID testing, and contact tracing

Shockingly, many in-person meetings now taking place require no pretesting of staff or attendees. (News flash: Checking someone’s forehead temperature when they enter a venue will not detect anyone who is infectious for the two days before symptoms appear, or who is asymptomatic.)

Even if everyone in the venue is tested daily, the widely used quick tests are simply too unreliable. From Nature again:

“Deeks says that a December trial at the University of Birmingham is an example of how rapid tests can miss infections. More than 7,000 symptom-free students there took an Innova test; only 2 tested positive. But when the university researchers rechecked 10% of the negative samples using PCR, they found another 6 infected students. Scaling that up across all the samples, the test probably missed 60 infected students.”
—Nature, February 9, 2021, Rapid coronavirus tests: a guide for the perplexed

Finally, I find it upsetting that venues like the OCCC keep claiming that they are #MeetingSafely when they are doing no post event follow-up! If an attendee contracts COVID-19 at the event, returns home, and infects grandma, how would the OCCC ever know?! Under the circumstances, I think it’s misleading, dangerous, and unethical for such a venue to publicly claim that they are providing an #MeetingSafely environment.
hate in-person meetings

4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not

In fact, some in-person meetings quietly acknowledge that they may not be providing a “safe” environment. One meeting venue held an in-person meeting that required waivers that forever bind attendees and their family members, and “heirs, assigns and personal representatives” not to sue if they contract COVID-19.

“I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss or personal injury, including serious illness, injury or death, that may be sustained by me or by others who come into contact with me, as a result of my presence in the Facilities, whether caused by the negligence of the AKC or OCCC or otherwise … I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND AGREE THAT IT IS VALID FOREVER. It is my express intent that this Waiver binds; (i) the members of my family and spouse, if I am alive, and (ii) my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, if I am deceased.”
—Extract from the Orlando, Florida, OCCC American Kennel Club National Championship Dog Show, December, 2020, Waiver

I’m not sure how you can bind people to a contract who may not even know they are a party to it. But, hey, I’m not a lawyer…

So, can we safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now?

For the reasons shared above, I don’t believe we can safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now. Consequently, it’s alarming that many venues, and some meeting planners, are promoting in-person meetings in the near future.

Do I hate in-person meetings?

By now it should be clear that I stand with meeting professionals like Cathi Lundgren, who posted the following in our Facebook group discussions:

“I’m not going to be silent when someone holds a meeting in a ballroom with a 100+ people and no masking or social distancing…I own a global meetings company—and we haven’t worked since March but no matter how much I want to get back at it I’m not going to condone behaviors that are not positive for the overall health of our industry.”
Cathi Lundgren, CMP, CAE

And here’s how I replied to the first Facebook commenter quoted at the top of this post:

“For goodness sake. I LOVE in-person events. It’s been heartbreaking for me, like everyone, to have not attended one for a year now. But that doesn’t mean I am going to risk stakeholder, staff, and attendee lives by uncritically supporting in-person meetings that are, sadly, according to current science, still dangerous to attend. When in-person meetings are safe to attend once more — and that day can’t come soon enough — you bet I’ll be designing, facilitating, and attending them.”

I hope it’s clear that I, and those meeting professionals who are pointing out valid safety and ethical concerns, don’t hate in-person meetings. Realistically, the future of in-person meetings remains uncertain, even with the amazing progress in developing and administering effective vaccines. More mutant COVID-19 strains that are resistant to or evade current vaccines, transmit more effectively, or have more deadly effects are possible. Any such developments could delay or fundamentally change our current hopes that maintaining transmission prevention plus mass vaccination will bring the pandemic under control.

I’m cautiously optimistic. But, right now, there are still too many unknowns for me to recommend clients to commit resources to future large 100% in-person events. Hub-and-spoke format hybrid meetings look like a safer bet. Regardless, everyone in the meeting industry hopes that it will be safe to hold in-person meetings real soon.

In the meantime, please don’t attack those of us in the industry who point out safety and ethical issues and consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.

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