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#13 Online meetings
Virtual conferences, Zoom meetings, online debates, Hangout mixers, …
I think I am not alone in feeling that online meetings are great. Yet at the same time, I wish we hadn’t committed to online only as completely and rapidly as we’ve done since the early Spring of 2020.
A lifetime ago, in February 2020, the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, Stichting 2030 (that I work for), and many others organized a hybrid meeting to discuss a more sustainable form of large scale meetings. The frame: reducing carbon emissions, improving diversity at events, and generally making them more good. Our keynote was Parke Wilde, aka Flying Less.
A few weeks later, many of the ambitious goals we had set collectively at that meeting had become the de facto reality for all event organizers.
In this newsletter, I want to share some of the stories that happened after this meeting. Stories about astronomers reducing their annual conference’s carbon emissions 3,000-fold; about preparing well; about some of the lessons I’ve learned and keep learning about setting up online meetings that matter. Tanja de Bie of the Centre for Innovation was the driving force behind our meeting in February and many of the endeavors of Leiden University in the world of online education. This week, she shared her lessons learned in a must-read twitter thread. I’m borrowing heavily from this thread in this email.
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Facilitating an online meeting with 40+ people during last Friday’s SDG Action Day.
The central insight I obtained during our February workshop, and one I have stuck to religiously since then, is that an online event is more than an online replacement for a physical event:
“First and foremost: A good digital meeting is designed with a digital-first mindset. A bad digital meeting is a physical meeting with digital as a watered-down alternative. Put differently, an excellent digital meeting is like YouTube or Netflix for watching videos; a bad one is live streaming whatever’s on in your local cinema (including a 15-minute blank screen while the ‘real’ audience is getting popcorn).” (source)
In practice, this means I’ve completely redesigned all sessions I facilitate to be successful online. It also means a session may differ depending on whether you use Zoom or MS Teams (because of their different functionality) or when it’s a hybrid event. In terms of designing outstanding events, I’ve found hybrid ones to be the most difficult.
In their overview of tips and tricks for virtual meetings, the Lorentz Center echoes my experience:
“A virtual or blended workshop is not an online version of a physical workshop. Don’t prepare a virtual workshop as you would prepare a physical workshop. It is important to embrace the fact that participants will join the workshop virtually and you have to rethink the format for the virtual workshop to be successful.”
One of the most significant advantages of online meetings is that participants are much more equal online than in real life. In a physical room, some people sit in the back or cluster in pre-existing groups. Online, especially on Zoom, everyone has a similarly-sized square that’s theirs. When facilitated well, this allows for other voices to be heard. (More on facilitation below.)
The best online meetings I’ve been part of combine synchronous and asynchronous content. In other words: live interaction between participants and activities that can or should be done individually. (This also applies to physical meetings, but is less obvious online.) They combine planned, pre-recorded content and unplanned, live improvisation. Again, from the Lorentz Center:
“Make conscious choices between synchronous and asynchronous content of the workshop. Usually, not everything needs to happen in one go or should be done by all participants at the same time (e.g. reading papers, sharing opinions, voting for topics, even watching pre-recorded presentations can all be done individually and/or on demand). This allows you to build stages and play with time in your workshop.”
On top of that, I’ve found that having some planned down-time in longer meetings (anything over 60 minutes) — e.g., watching a video together or listening to some music — helps keep everyone involved. Looking back at it, I think the What Matters Now event we did in July brings together all these elements. It is good to point to the fact this took months to produce.
Facilitating any session is difficult, and online meetings can be notoriously hard to facilitate well. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the February workshop was to have a minimum of three facilitators roles:
The meeting facilitator
The tech facilitator
The chat facilitator
In small meetings of up to maybe eight people, one person can combine these roles. Between eight and 15 people, the tech and chat facilitator can be the same person. Anything above that number requires all three positions. In many of the more complex online meetings I’ve run, we always ensure the facilitators’ team has a separate backchannel. This doesn’t have to be a fancy setup. With Europeana, we used Whatsapp, with the SDG Café, paper cards.
Good facilitation can further create an egalitarian feeling in the room. The host of our SDG Cafés, Thea Fierens, is a case in point. She always ensures all voices are heard and meticulously keeps track of who has spoken and who hasn’t. I tried to learn from her in a session I ran last week as part of the SDG Action Day by carefully making notes of all the participants, what they said and who hadn’t said anything so far, to loop everyone into the conversation.
The greatest challenge of online meetings can be the social and networking part. It is also why I’ve heard many people say online will never fully replace in-person meetings. We need face-to-face time to build strong ties. That doesn’t mean, however, that we cannot do anything online. I have found that keeping the line open for 15-20 minutes after the official end of the meeting, and ideally opening it 15 minutes before its start, makes time for people to chat and meet informally.
This is one of the areas where online meetings may be very much like in-person meetings. In-person, you’d also take some time to enter the room and leave it to chat about other things than the stuff on the agenda.
Which brings me to the impact of online meetings. Yes, they can be better than in-person meetings, but how and how much?
In Nature, Leonard Burtscher and others write about the carbon footprint of large astronomy meetings. Leonard was also part of the February meeting. I’ve met him a couple of times pre-COVID-19 when he was part of a team to make the 2020 European Astronomical Society meeting its most sustainable. What we didn’t know then was that this was going to be a walk in the park:
“The annual meeting of the European Astronomical Society took place in Lyon, France, in 2019, but in 2020 it was held online only due the COVID-19 pandemic. The carbon footprint of the virtual meeting was roughly 3,000 times smaller than the face-to-face one, providing encouragement for more ecologically minded conferencing.”
Their paper is a reminder for all of us, organizing or taking part in large-scale conferences that their impact is real. Especially intercontinental travel for a meeting is detrimental to any efforts to live sustainably. “The majority of trips (~80%) [to the 2019 EAS conference] produced CO2e emissions of less than 1,000 kg per trip. Conversely, the intercontinental flights (~10% of all trips) produced 50% of the total emissions of respondents.”
The positive impact of online meetings isn’t limited to reduced carbon emissions. Anecdotal evidence shows that online meetings tend to be more accessible (due to the reduced cost and investment in time).
In their paper, Leonard and its team paint a picture of the future of meetings.
“A possible solution to retain the social ‘buzz’ of a large conference while reducing emissions to near zero is to hold global meetings synchronously at a number of regional hubs that can be reached by train. To ease train travel, meetings could be held in accessible locations (for example, near major train stations rather than out-of-the-way places) and meeting schedules could accommodate train travel by starting Monday afternoon and ending Friday at noon. This latter restriction may fall thanks to an increasing fleet of night trains across Europe at least and, in the future, short flights that can be powered by synthesized fuel or batteries. Such a scheme of regional hubs has been tried and evaluated as successful by various groups in the last year.”
We came to the same conclusion in February. This Friday, we put this model to practice with a local hub to a national conference during SDG Action Day. If you ask me, it was a great success.
To conclude, this week, I spoke with the moderator of what would in standard times be a program with many musicians sharing a stage. This year, due to COVID-19, they’re doing this event online. He had just had the recordings with all the participants. I asked him: How does recording and doing the event online compare to the ‘real thing’? “Better,” he said. Now, there was time to talk with all the performers. And being recorded gave them a special feeling.
Preparing for a good online meeting is a lot of work. An excellent online meeting can have much better outcomes than a traditional in-person meeting. I’m happy we have developed this tool for our toolbox and look forward to many more excellent online events.
Thanks for reading to the very end of this newsletter. As always, there’s a lot I didn’t write about, such as the final result of our school’s fundraiser (over 12,000 euros!), what we actually talked about in some of these meetings (movements!), and a lot of the beautiful new people and initiatives I learned about last week. All that, and more, in a future newsletter. Thanks!