June 2020

Virtual can be better for conferences… but for how long?

Education News

Virtual can be better for conferences… but for how long?

Dirk Rossey

At Arowana International we have been organising a quarterly global leadership conference, Circle of Leadership (COL) where we bring the leaders from all our operating companies together for two days (no matter where they operate from in the world). We discuss strategy, exchange ideas regarding execution and have focused learning sessions that are structured around key literacies that we feel all our senior leaders need to have to succeed. For 33 consecutive COL’s the gap fillers (breaks, tabletop discussions, lunches and dinners) had been the opportunity for all to bond and to interact socially.

Alas, 2020 was not the year of perfect vision that the name promised it to be. Two weeks before the March COL was due to happen, we realised that we would need to switch to a 100% virtual conference.

While the March conference went well because of a combination of a lot of goodwill combined with a massive adrenaline spike from all involved, June really was a moment of truth to see if this could be a sign of the ‘new normal’ everybody is referencing.

It is!

What did we learn from pivoting our global leadership conference to be virtual?

Virtual can be better
Part 1
– Our Global Leadership conferences are rather complex in structure. They are in fact so complex that every person gets an individualised agenda with only her/his sessions on it. This makes time management essential.  A Webinar/Virtual conference structure allowed us to have a separate virtual meeting room for each of the sessions. This magically manages the gatekeeping. Only people that are invited come into the ‘room’ and if a meeting runs over, we let the people in the ‘other room’ simply know that we’re a minute late. These messages get sent to the meeting rooms chat lines.

The role of the MC – The more complex the conference, the more critical the role of the MC (as well as her/his ability to manage time and people remotely). I often give hints by announcing what’s going to happen in 2-3 minutes. Also, I send relentless messages to people who are up for a speaking slot to prep and be ready from the word GO. When a session is at risk of ending earlier, I go on the prowl for friendly questions to fill the time slot. We did build in regular pauses and we stuck religiously with start times. When we said we’d start a session at 2:18pm, it started precisely at that time. Some companies and cultures are better suited to the rigour of on-time starts, but we’re a stickler for it, especially in this virtual environment.

Overall a Better UX – People commented on the smooth running of the multiple sessions (something Microsoft Teams managed seamlessly for us). There is a difference in the UX based on personality types, but this format is generally appreciated more by Introverted types. Still the Extroverted types felt that the conversations were more open and honest. I make so many more doodles nowadays – anybody else feel the same?

Virtual can be better
Part 2
– Another bonus is that we have instant access to perfectly managed videos. We used to film each COL conference. Patrick – our video guy – would be filming, and he would mike-up every speaker at the start of a session and he would record it and produce the video clips. That all now takes 5 seconds. With sound as good as perfect and presentations right there. Sorry Patrick.

Deeper Learning – this one also surprised me. But since 80% of participants are wearing headsets while looking at their screens, the focus is better, and the learning can be deeper. We found that insisting that people use video (bandwidth permitting), makes them less likely to multitask on the side.

Cheaper to run – I will not tell you how much it cost us before to run a quarterly leadership conference where you fly the key people to Sydney from where-ever they are in Australia and the world every 3 months, but you can do the math. This latest COL cost us $0. Not a dime. Our financial controller loves us now.

Virtual can be better
Part 3
– A surprising bonus feature of virtual conferences is that we can share referenced articles or video clips instantly that a presenter hasn’t included in her/his presentation. In our recently held June COL the moderator called up the trailer to ‘The Accountant’ to accentuate a point made by a presenter, participants also shared articles and congratulatory messages to presenters as people were talking.

Not all is positive about virtual conferences – Please note that there are a fair few disadvantages from not meeting up physically which I’ve not gone into, but COVID stopped us from even contemplating these, so we just make the best of it.

For Arowana, the new normal will henceforward be a hybrid where 1 of the 4 COL’s will be run as a physical event and we are planning to make that agenda much deeper on social interactions and team activities rather than listening to presentations in a room which we found can be better done through Microsoft Teams.