Air quality readings during my trip to Puerto Rico

Air quality on plane Air quality has a significant effect on human health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become an especially critical issue. Why? Because COVID-19 spreads via aerosols that can float in the air for minutes to hours. Although there is currently no commercially available way to measure the presence of COVID-19 in air, I’ve written about how measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations can act as a useful proxy for COVID-19 infection risk. Small, inexpensive CO2 meters are now widely available.

So when I took a deep (masked) breath and decided to accept an invitation to design and lead a two-day meeting industry leadership summit in Puerto Rico, I decided to bring my CO2 meter with me. What would I learn about the air quality in the airports, planes, and ground transportation I used, as well as my hotel and the summit’s convention center? Well, I uncovered significant air quality concerns in places that may surprise you. Read on to find out what I discovered. But first, a brief explanation of what CO2 measurements mean.

How do CO2 levels correlate with the risk for COVID-19 infection?

It’s complicated! Measurements of indoor CO2 concentrations can often be good indicators of airborne infection risk. But clear conclusions on the CO2 level corresponding to a given COVID-19 infection risk are currently lacking. Multiple factors influence the risk. These include exposure duration, the mixing of air in the vicinity, the exhalation volume and rate of infected individuals, and, of course, the use of masks, virus-removing air filtration, and UVC and far-UVC radiation. This article gives some idea of the complexities involved. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has summarized current thinking on indoor CO2. ASHRAE takes the position that “indoor CO2 concentrations do not provide an overall indication of IAQ [indoor air quality], but they can be a useful tool in IAQ assessments if users understand the limitations in these applications.”

More research is required, especially because of “the ubiquity of indoor concentrations of CO2 in excess of 1,000 [parts per million] ppm.” And ASHRAE reports that “indoor concentrations of CO2 greater than 1,000 ppm have been associated with increases in self-reported, nonspecific symptoms commonly referred to as sick building syndrome symptoms.” To summarize, currently, there is insufficient research suggesting CO2 levels that indicate a significantly increased risk for COVID-19 infection. However, many authorities have tentatively proposed maximum levels of around 1,000 ppm CO2 as guidelines.

air quality
From a REHVA (The Federation of European Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) journal article on CO₂ monitoring and indoor air quality.

OK, enough of this; you probably want to know what I found. Here we go!

Flying

I flew JetBlue flights 261 and 462 between Boston (BOS) and San Juan (SJU). My outbound flight, on an Airbus A321, lasted 3 hours and 43 minutes. My return flight, on an Airbus A320, took 4 hours and 40 minutes. (Don’t ask.) On both flights, I had an aisle seat in row 15. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, I perched my little CO2 meter on my knees when tray tables had to be up. The rest of the time, it nestled perfectly into the little tray table drink recess. Here’s an annotated graph of the CO2 readings I took on my outbound flight. Air quality plane

My key flight observations

  • Boarding the aircraft led to a large spike in CO2 levels. Levels increased sharply in the jetway as I approached the passenger door. Slowly walking down a packed aisle to my seat I saw readings around 2,000 ppm. Once in my seat, the levels dropped somewhat but were still high (1,600 ppm) when they closed the door.
  • Levels stayed high (above 1,500 ppm) while taxiing until we took off. We had been on the plane for about 50 minutes at this point.
  • I estimate that about 30% of the passengers were unmasked, as well as most of the flight attendants.
  • During the cruising portion of the flight, the CO2 level stayed at REHVA’s “upper range of reliable air quality” of 1,000 ppm. The level in the bathroom was 1,200 ppm.
  • Once we started our descent, levels rose a few hundred ppm. On landing, we were at 1,300 ppm.
  • During deplaning, levels soared again. I took the photo at the top of this post, showing a reading of 2,074 ppm, at this point.
  • As soon as they opened the passenger door, levels dropped to around 1,200 ppm.
  • On my return trip (which took close to five hours) I saw similar readings, except that:
    • The cruising flight CO2 level was significantly higher (1,200 – 1,400) ppm.
    • The boarding peak was lower (1,500 ppm).
    • The deplaning peak was an unsettling 2,400 ppm.

To summarize, these readings are troublesome. Aircraft ventilation systems reportedly filter out aerosols, assuming that the HEPA filters are regularly replaced. However, the close proximity of passengers (both flights were full) still allows people to infect others close to them, as this NY Times article illustrates. The high readings I saw indicate that in-flight ventilation was not fully operative during embarkation and deplaning on either flight. I am glad I wore a high-quality N95 mask during both.

Airports

BOS airport levels were around 600 ppm. At SJU I saw readings between 650 – 800 ppm. Both of these are acceptable. Neither airport was especially crowded, however, and I would be cautious about assuming it’s OK to go unmasked there.

Ground transportation

This was a shocker to me. In the U.S. during the pandemic, when driving with others I’m used to having the car windows open, at least a little. Puerto Rico was hot and humid, and the vehicles I was in had the A/C on and windows closed. My client had arranged a car and driver to pick me up from the airport and drive me to the convention center for a couple of technical rehearsals and then to my hotel. Just the two of us in a Chevy Suburban quickly raised the CO2 level to around 1,500 ppm for the 30 minutes we were together. Luckily we were both masked.

I saw the same readings during my trip to the airport at the end of the event.

But I saw the highest readings during my travel in a shuttle bus bringing us to the opening reception. There were, perhaps, 20 of us on board. Readings spiked to over 3,000 ppm! And some of the passengers were unmasked.

The conference center

The conference center was far from maximum capacity and I only saw readings well below 1,000 ppm. We held the summit in four meeting rooms with high ceilings. We left the meeting room doors open, and my meter typically showed readings between 500 – 600 ppm. If the venue had been packed or the doors closed it might have been a different story.

My hotel

I was concerned about the air quality in my (large) hotel room because I expected it to have no openable windows due to San Juan’s climate, and this proved to be the case. Over the three nights I was there I noticed the same pattern. On entering the room during the day, readings were about 600 ppm. As evening approached, the readings slowly climbed to about 900 ppm.

I had reason to be concerned.

The increase in CO2 as evening approached was probably due to increased occupancy of nearby rooms. Building heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems typically recirculate interior air, mixing together air from all the rooms in the building. So as guests retire to their rooms in the evening, the overall CO2 concentration in every room increases.

That means that although I was alone in my room I was breathing exhalations from other guests. If any of those guests had COVID-19, it’s possible that their aerosols would travel into the air I was breathing. There was nothing I could do to protect myself other than wearing a mask the whole time I was there (which obviously included sleeping!)

Commercial HVAC systems

Commercial HVAC systems include filters to remove dust and dirt. Typical HVAC filters will not stop COVID-19 aerosols unless they have been upgraded to MERV 13 or better (e.g. HEPA). They also need to be regularly replaced to work correctly.

Whether these mitigation measures have been performed at a hotel is hard to know. My hotel was modern, but that doesn’t mean its HVAC system was well-designed and safe. I have stayed at hundreds of hotels over the years. Some of them, based on the odor of the rooms, had ventilation problems of some kind. Paradoxically, the single-unit heating and cooling systems common in inexpensive lodgings could be safer because air entering the room only comes from outside.

Concerns like these have made me cautious about staying in accommodations that don’t have windows that can be opened. That wasn’t possible in Puerto Rico, and my CO2 monitor gave me at least some reassurance that air quality levels weren’t too bad. However, many commercial lodging offerings don’t offer this option. The inspection and, if necessary, re-engineering of hotel HVAC systems is an important step to protect guest health. Yes, it costs money, but if the owners have done this work they should publicize it as a reason to stay.

For more information about this important topic, read my article about COVID-19 transmission and air quality in buildings.

Conclusion

As I write this, I’ve been isolating for four days since my return, and just performed my fourth daily rapid antigen test. All have been negative. So it looks like I’ve escaped getting COVID-19 during my first major travel since the pandemic began. I recommend travelers purchase an inexpensive CO2 meter and bring it with them.

I hope the information I’ve shared in this post is helpful in warning other travelers of potentially dangerous environments. COVID-19 is far from over. As the pandemic continues, monitor your air quality while traveling—and mask up.

Travel safe!

Are in-person events COVID safe?

in-person events COVID safeSeptember 2021 — Are in-person events COVID safe? The worldwide meeting industry is desperately, and understandably, waiting for the answer to this question to be “Yes”. Well, Freeman, the largest global event management firm, has just announced “the truth is, in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store — and we have the data to prove it”.

Sadly, while I acknowledge and appreciate Freeman’s significant work on the case for recommencing meeting in person, I believe this claim is misleading, and the underlying modeling and research include flawed assumptions.

Make no mistake; I love to design and facilitate in-person meetings. I strongly desire to be able to safely return to facilitating and attending in-person events. But, as meeting professionals, we have a professional duty of care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think it’s important to provide a realistic assessment of risk for meeting stakeholders—especially potential attendees. Articles are already appearing in meeting publications (1, 2) that highlight the one-line summary of the Freeman announcement above. Such opinions, buttressed by what seems to be solid research and modeling, can easily give our industry the impression that in-person meetings can safely recommence.

My concerns about Freeman’s statements

I have two broad concerns about Freeman’s summary of research “Inside LIVE: The data you need to navigate the Delta variant for events” on the safety of in-person events. You can watch Freeman’s 55-minute webinar, posted on August 25, 2021, below.

1—Freeman’s overall conclusion is misleading

My first concern is that Freeman’s big picture conclusion that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” is a misleading characterization of the statistics they present.

in-person events COVID safe

Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).

in-person events COVID safe

This slide compares the mid-August, 2021 rate of COVID cases amongst the entire population in the United States with the reported rates from four recent large in-person events. The second column shows the infection rate as a percentage.

The entire U.S. infection rate is indeed higher than the reported rates from the listed recent in-person events. (I’ll add that we know that reported rates are typically significantly lower than actual rates, but let’s assume that both sets of statistics are undercounted to the same degree.)

Unfortunately, Freeman’s statement that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” does not follow from the data on this slide!

Why?

Because the statement conflates the risk of a masked visit to a grocery store with the overall risk in the United States of getting infected! The latter regrettably includes a significant fraction of the U.S. population who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, don’t wear masks to protect against airborne transmission of COVID-19, and don’t social distance. The risk of contracting COVID-19 during a grocery store masked visit is far less than the overall risk for everyone in the U.S.

The headline statement is, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. You’d expect any event that implements precautions against COVID-19 transmission to have a lower infection rate than the entire United States. That doesn’t mean that attending an event is a safe enough choice for attendees and staff.

This brings us to what’s actually important to people trying to make a decision whether to attend an event. The event modeling, performed for Freeman by Epistemix, and discussed later, suggests that those who are currently likely to attend a large in-person business event that implements mitigation strategies such as vaccination requirements, masking, and social distancing, are significantly more likely to be vaccinated (~80%). That statistic seems credible to me.

Such potential attendees, who are already more careful than the average American about how they live their lives in a pandemic, aren’t interested in whether an event environment provides a risk of getting COVID-19 comparable to the average risk of the entire population of the U.S. Rather, they want to know if attending the event will significantly (defined by them) increase their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. And that brings me to the second concern about the assumptions made by Epistemix’s event risk model.

2—The event risk model used for risk calculations is flawed and incomplete

When I heard about the Freeman webinar (thanks Julius Solaris!), I posted some initial responses. Freeman’s Jessica Fritsche was kind enough to reach out to me and arrange a Zoom call with John Cordier, the CEO of Epistemix, to walk through the data modeling used in the research. And John generously offered an hour of his time for us to talk. We were also joined by Sarah Shewey, Founder/CEO of Happily who was also interested in learning more about how infection rates at meetings could be modeled.

During our hour together, John shared an overview of the Epistemix model. This gave me a better understanding of Epistemix’s approach. The model essentially attempts to simulate the entire population of the United States at an impressive level of detail. It includes numerous geographic and social factors that affect infection risk. However, during our conversation I asked about a number of important factors that I believe Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks.

Probably the most important of these is adequately modeling the air quality at the event, given the paucity of information available about the safety of specific venues and properties from an air quality perspective. In addition, the model does not include the additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event. Though it’s likely possible to model the increased risk during (unmasked) eating and drinking social activities during the event, it doesn’t appear that the Epistemix model does this. Finally, though the Epistemix model incorporates information about COVID-19 variants as they become known, I’m skeptical that it can accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new COVID-19 variants.

In the following sections, I’ll expand on these issues in more detail.

Flaws and omissions in Epistemix’s meeting model

First, a tiny introduction to modeling human systems. All models are an approximation of reality. Consequently,

All models are wrong, but some are useful
—aphorism generally attributed to the statistician George Box

My model building background

I learned to program computers in high school, over 50 years ago. Through a series of summer jobs, undergraduate and graduate work, and consulting assignments, I’ve spent years creating computer models of city traffic systems, the interactions of high energy particle beams bombarding matter, the consequences of obscure physics theories, and the functions of complicated administrative systems.

Two fundamental considerations when building and trusting computer models are:

  1. The assumptions one makes in building a model are key to the model being actually useful rather than wrong. Computer models are very seductive. They seem precise and authoritative, and it’s hard to discover and accept their limitations and/or even their completely wrong predictions. Choosing the right assumptions is an art, not a science. One poor assumption can doom a model’s reliability.
  2. Even if you choose good assumptions, implementing them correctly in computer code is difficult. It’s hard to be sure that an implementation faithfully reflects core assumptions. An incorrect implementation of a potentially useful model typically leads to incorrect predictions. If you’re lucky, it’s obvious that a model’s outputs are wrong. But sometimes, predictions are subtly wrong in ways that are easy to overlook.

I’m going to assume that Epistemix models faithfully implement the assumptions made to create them (#2 above). However, I’ve identified four factors that I feel Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks. Some of these factors are interlinked.

1—Adequately modeling airborne COVID-19 transmission at a specific event

While talking to John, it became clear to me that the current Epistemix approach does not adequately model the air quality—and the consequent risk of COVID-19 transmission—at a specific event. The model has some capacity to estimate risks (which are generally minimal) in very large, high-ceiling spaces like convention halls. But, of course, the typical meeting venue contains multiple meeting spaces, some of them small, and, critically, the venues do not in general have a good handle (if any) on the air quality in those spaces. (Or, if they do, they’re not talking publicly about it.)

When I wrote about this issue six months ago, I put out an industry wide request to learn of venues and properties that had upgraded their HVAC systems to current ASHRAE recommendations (typically ~5 air changes/hour plus MERV 13 or better air filtering). I promised to publicize the venues that had made these upgrades.

I know such upgrades can be costly, but you’d think that venues and properties that have implemented them would love to promote themselves as having air quality that meets current pandemic-based standards.

To date, I have not been told of a single venue that is now compliant with ASHRAE pandemic recommendations. (I hope that by now there are some, and that they will let this be known.) During the webinar, Freeman said that such work has and is being done. Please share this information, folks! Meeting planners want to know!

Frankly, without this information a) being made available and b) being incorporated into the Epistemix model it’s hard to have much confidence in the infection risks Epistemix’s model predicts.

2—Additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event

Epistemix’s model does not include the additive risks for attendees (and staff) traveling to and from an event. The main concern is air travel. The air industry has stressed that air change rates in aircraft are high (over 10 air changes/hour) and, now that masks are mandatory, infection risks should therefore be low. An excellent investigation by the New York Times “How Safe Are You From Covid When You Fly?” has tempered this assessment somewhat. Of particular interest are comments from a couple of readers who monitored the carbon-dioxide level—an excellent proxy for air quality—during their entire travel. They found that boarding and deplaning air quality was drastically reduced, as well as during the last thirty minutes of one person’s flight. Exposure at terminal restaurants, where masks must be removed, is also potentially risky.

Quite apart from the “event” itself, staying in a venue may greatly increase one’s risk of infection. I wrote about venue and property ventilation concerns in detail in April, 2021, and later articles by PCMA (1, 2) and the New York Times (1) have echoed this concern.

Again, travel risks are not included in Epistemix’s model. They can be significant, and have to be included to determine the relative risk for an event attendee who is choosing whether to participate or staff an event, or not.

3—Modeling the increased risk when masks are off for socials and group meals

Most in-person meetings include meals and socials, when masking is not possible. Unless you hold such unmasked get-togethers outdoors or in safely ventilated venues, airborne transmission of COVID-19 amongst everyone present (attendees and staff) is a potentially significant and unknown risk. Outdoor locations are only possible for limited periods in much of the U.S. As mentioned above, venues and properties remain silent on whether they’ve upgraded and certified their facilities to current ASHRAE recommendations on air quality.

We have also seen reports of numerous cases of reduced, unmasked social distancing at socials and meals. This is understandable in a world where we’ve been masked and apart for so long. But it is still a risky activity, especially in spaces where ventilation is inadequate.

My understanding (which may be incorrect) of Epistemix’s model is that masking is a global parameter for an event. The model does not handle unmasking in specific event spaces for periods of time. Even if the model does have this flexibility, the lack of knowledge of whether such spaces are safely ventilated prevents an accurate risk assessment.

4—Can Epistemix model the appearance of brand new COVID-19 variants?

I am also still skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion, given how the world took about six months after the delta variant was first identified to realize that it was radically changing COVID-19 transmission rates. While Epistemix’s model includes the infection characteristics of multiple variants, and new variants can be added once they are identified, I wonder if an event organizer who made a go/no-go decision about a fall meeting early this summer based on the Epistemix model would be happy about the increased predicted risks once the delta variant was added.

But John and I didn’t have time to fully explore this issue, so this concern may be overblown.

Are in-person events COVID safe?

I really appreciate John Cordier’s willingness to share an overview of Epistemix’s infection risk model for events. Obviously, my brief introduction means there’s no way I can authoritatively review the extensive assumptions that are built into the model. Epistemix’s model is impressively detailed and, if correctly implemented (which I have no reason to doubt), seems to comprehensively cover core demographics, the data needed to model infection spread in regional populations, and most major components for predicting infection at a specific event.

When I brought up the concerns I’ve listed in this post, I felt that John largely talked past me, continuing with an explanation of the model without responding directly to what I was asking. This was somewhat frustrating. The two exceptions to this were:

  1. My question about whether the model could accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new variants. This arose at the end of our meeting. John indicated that he believed the model was able to do this, but we didn’t have enough time to explore this issue fully. I’m still skeptical, though he might well have been able to convince me otherwise if we’d had more time.
  2. My primary concern about modeling air quality in detail. John admitted during the meeting that the model does not currently handle specific venue air quality architecture at the detail that’s necessary to simulate, say, what happens when you have a session in a smaller classroom with an HVAC system that is not up to current ASHRAE recommendations. It also omits risks due to event participants (and staff) spending time in properties that may have inadequate air quality. He wrote to me afterwards that “he’d be glad to follow up on the air-quality parameters that you think are most important”.

I’ve seen so many pretty models of systems over the decades. To a casual viewer, they look impressive. It’s only because I spent years building and validating such models that I know how misleading they can be, and the difficulty and importance of identifying the key factors and approximations that form the basis of the model and limit its scope and/or accuracy.

Leaving out detailed venue specific air quality modeling, plus the incoming and return travel risks and accommodation risks during an event, plus inadequate modeling of the risk of transmission during socials and food & beverage sessions make the outputs of the Epistemix model suspect. And I’m skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion.

Finally, I haven’t covered in this article the feasibility of implementing the various mitigation strategies that are available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection at meetings. Personally, I’d insist on proof of vaccination (no exceptions) and maximal masking at any event I’m likely to attend in the near future. But I’ll just add here this observation from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society‘s HIMSS21 Las Vegas conference for 19,000 attendees. Vaccination was mandatory for all attendees. There were six positive test results (0.03% infarction rate). However, this PCMA article on the event includes the statement: “…you will not be able to service your show if you require every single vendor employee, every single supplier employee, every single temp employee to be vaccinated — there’s just not enough labor out there.” Something to bear in mind.

Are in-person events COVID safe? Ultimately, each of us needs to decide the answer to this question. But, in my opinion, until the COVID-19 case count drops drastically and/or venues can show that their facility ventilation is safe, it’s a violation of our professional duty of care to mislead attendees and those who work in our industry by telling them “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store”.

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

At a Marlboro Music Festival rehearsal last week, I heard the words entrance and layer used in a single sentence. And it made me think about meeting design.

entrance layer
Marcy Rosen, right, leads a rehearsal

The rehearsal

On August 8, my wife and I attended a rehearsal of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 at the 2021 Marlboro Music Festival. Such free rehearsals give the casual audience an opportunity to hear world-class musicians play and learn together. They are very different from a formal concert, and surprisingly, in some ways, better!

After the start of (I think) the third movement, the players stopped, and I heard the cellist Marcy Rosen — “one of the intimate art’s abiding treasures” — say:

“It’s not an entrance, it’s a layer.”
—Cellist Marcy Rosen

They began again.

I heard the difference.

Instead of creating a transition, an entrance to the movement, they created a shimmering context, a layer.

And, me being me, I thought about what Marcy had just said in the context of meeting design.

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

As spectators, our lives are full of transitions.

And meetings are no exception.

The session ends. A social begins. A chime marks the end of hallway conversations, and we walk to another room to listen to someone else.

When we’re spectators, we notice transitions.

But when we are fully engaged in a meeting, we are just there, immersed in and responding to what is happening. We aren’t looking at our watches or phones. We aren’t thinking about where we’ll go for lunch. Instead, we are in the moment, living in a layer of context.

The art and craft of the meeting designer

It’s a meeting designer’s job to create these contextual layers. Each layer is an environment that supports and enables full participation in and active experience of what’s going on.

A good example of a key meeting layer is safety.

A layer of safety

We don’t hold meetings in burning buildings, on rapidly melting ice floes, or in the middle of a sandstorm. Attendees want to feel safe. But even when our meeting venues are conventionally safe places, they may not feel emotionally safe for attendees to participate in what is going on.

A good meeting designer and facilitator knows this, and designs to create and support emotional safety for participants. For example, they may model participation throughout the event, and allow participants to opt out of any activity. They can also create a culture of listening, obtain agreement on group-wide covenants, strive to give clear instructions, and provide process that is comfortable for introverts.

Designs that incorporate optimal protective process provide an important layer of safety that maximizes participants’ levels of comfort and their readiness to participate in the event.

Other important layers at a meeting

Other important process layers at a meeting include:

  • Incorporating event crowdsourcing which allows participants to design the event and sessions they want and need; and
  • The design of the conference arc, which includes everything necessary for participants to discover, learn, connect, and engage around the topics or issues that brought them together.

And the traditional layers that professional meeting planners provide:

  • Consistent quality of service and experience, e.g., food and beverage, decor, and production;
  • Reliable, timely, and clear information about the program, sessions, meals, exhibits, and socials.
  • A comfortable physical environment throughout the event.

Focus on layers as well as transitions

Sometime, meeting stakeholders concentrate on the transitions at meetings at the expense of the layers. It’s tempting to focus on creating dramatic build-ups to peak moments, or how we will then move participants to an outdoor social. While a session or social is taking place, we may get a little breathing space. Our planning energy switches to preparing for the next transition.

Of courser, transitions during a meeting are both unavoidable and important. But unduly focusing on them at your event can lead planners to overlook the value of creating an environment that powerfully engages participants and builds significant connections between them.

By also focusing on the meeting layers I’ve identified above, you’ll create an improved environment that will amplify value for participants and stakeholders throughout and after your event.

Image attribution: Journal Register Co.

Venue ventilation for COVID-19

venue ventilation COVID-19Attention, meeting planners! Safe meeting venue ventilation for COVID-19 is critical. As we start thinking about returning to in-person events, it’s crucial to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle potentially virus-infused air.

There has been little public discussion on this important topic. In this post, I’ll explain why questions about venues’ HVAC safety should be at the top of your site visit checklist.

Before we start, I need to make clear I’m not an HVAC engineer. My (perhaps) relevant background is an ancient Ph.D. in high-energy particle physics, and two years spent exploring ventilation systems—specifically air-to-air heat exchangers—when I owned a solar manufacturing company in the 1980s.

Introduction

Since the pandemic began, the science on COVID-19 transmission has evolved rapidly. Because early theories turned out to be inaccurate, current preventative measures are frequently misdirected. So I’ve included a short history of theories of COVID-19 transmission that shed light on the reasons we’ve underestimated the importance of ventilation in creating safe environments for indoor events.

Next, I’ve outlined what current research indicates venues and properties should be doing.

Finally, I’ve aired my concerns about how well venues and properties are responding to the safety concerns I’ve introduced.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trust, safety, and learning at meetings

Trust safety learningIf people come to meetings to learn, how can we create the best environment for them to do so? It turns out that trust and safety are prerequisites for optimum learning at meetings. Let’s explore why.

How we learn at meetings

For over twenty years, we’ve known that adults learn 90% of what they need to know to do their job via informal learning. Only about 10% of adult learning involves formal classroom or meeting presentation formats.

Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.

At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.

Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.

Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.

And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.

The importance of trust

[A tip of the hat to Harold Jarche‘s post trust emerges over time, which provides the quotes for this section.]

Harold quotes philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss:

“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.
—Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?

Why people may not share their knowledge

Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:

“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.”
—Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge

So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.

Trust safety learning

This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.

Designing for trust, safety, and learning

In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.

So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.

That’s why I:

  • introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
  • create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
  • provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
  • give people the right to not participate at any time.

The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.

[For more on creating safety at events, see Chapter 17 of my book The Power of Participation.]

Image attribution: Young girl learning spring board diving at outdoor pool by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

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 attendees have to temporarily remove masks. It’s understandably hard for people 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-carrying aerosols 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 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 the consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.

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.

How old are you?

How old are you“How old are you?” All of us have wondered about the age of someone we’ve met, but asking this question can be awkward, even during a one-to-one conversation. Making public the ages of hundreds of people in a meeting room — well, that’s even more awkward! Body voting (aka human spectrograms) can uncover this information in a few minutes, but because age can be a sensitive subject, I’ve always demurred requests to have participants line up by age at a meeting.

Until last week.

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You can’t make people change. But…

you can't make people change

“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership

Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.

However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.

What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!

Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.

Peer conferences support change

The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 30 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!

Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.

Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.

  • A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
  • The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
  • A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
  • The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.

These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.

Leadership for meetings

Leadership for meetingsWhat might leadership for meetings look like?

Let’s turn to Harold Jarche for inspiration:

“Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.
Harold Jarche, work in 2018

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