Pre-COVID-19 workshop on virtual meetings and conferences Photo by Daniel Funes Fuentes

Pre-COVID-19 workshop on virtual meetings and conferences

While attending a workshop on virtual meetings in academia, our author Carole de Bordes would not have expected how relevant this topic would soon be. This blog post gives insights into some solutions for more sustainable conferencing and collaboration from today’s perspective.

At CWTS, many researchers travel around the world to attend conferences, meet with relevant stakeholders, give lectures and/or provide trainings. But what are the costs of all these travels? There are many reasons to avoid flying and to facilitate virtual conferencing, including climate change, work pressure, and seeking to include a diverse audience. Well, in addition to that, we can add the rapid spread of a pandemic for several weeks now…

On the 20th of February, I followed – physically – a workshop at the Leiden Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (organized in partnership with Leiden University) on virtual meetings and conferences. This fruitful event was organized as a Design Thinking afternoon where participants met and interacted to come up with solutions for sustainable (digital) events. One must say: what a bizarre coincidence to attend such a workshop just a few weeks before the COVID-19 crisis really hit the Netherlands – implying social distancing and remote working.

In this blog post, I will present the most relevant outcomes of the workshop for our institute and will follow up with a short discussion of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our daily (new) routines at CWTS.

Before attending this workshop, I set two main goals for myself:

  • To learn from best practices to help in convincing my colleagues to organize conferences and meetings in a sustainable way, including flying less;
  • To be able to provide input on possible improvements of the available technology for virtual conferencing and remote working.

    In the workshop, we discussed the use of tech-solutions as well as non-tech solutions concerning three different cases. 

    1. If you cannot or do not want to attend a conference (or meeting) physically, a few options are available:

    • Attending the meeting virtually by using a digital tool such as Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams meeting, etc.
    • Organizing and/or attending “hub meetings”: instead of travelling to the other side of the world, you can set a hub in your region to avoid flying and to enjoy the benefits of meeting physically with other people.
    • Using and piloting a telepresence robot: the chance to try and "beam" yourself into a distant robotic body is an exciting idea. However, would you get the same experience as being there physically? Considering that most interactions between people occur during informal moments such as coffee breaks, the robot would hardly be able to replace you!

    2. If you decide to organize a digital meeting yourself, one important step to take is to define some rules of engagement for the people who participate virtually. It is important to communicate in advance how to access the meeting and to make sure that everyone has the digital tool available on his computer. Then, you need to decide: Who will chair the meeting? Who will take notes? You also need to make sure that virtual attendees are able to participate, for example by using a chat option. You need to ask people to mute themselves to prevent sound disruptions unless you have agreed before starting the meeting that participants can contribute to the discussion by asking questions at any time. Such rules seem to be implicit, but they are necessary for the smooth running of the meeting. Additionally, some tips were suggested by the audience to keep people online and awake for a full day of conference:

    • With the “carrot” incentive, you get something if you stay until the end of the day.
    • Everyone gets a “buddy” to check on regularly. This enhances interaction and accountability.
    • Being creative during lunch or coffee breaks. For example, someone could organize a live Spanish cooking class (i.e., from a Spanish participant) to virtually share a tapas lunch.

    One-third of the workshop participants attended virtually. Like that, we got live experience in what it means to have 16 people connected and being able to interact with us. Personally, I found it impressive and well organized but also distractive… My focus was mostly on the chat appearing on the right side of the screen instead of the speech given by the lecturer.

    3. If you wish to attend a conference (or meeting) in person or plan to organize an event yourself, you might want to find sustainable solutions to limit your carbon footprint. To think further about this, participants were divided into groups (with all the virtual participants forming one single group) and asked to discuss and come up with a list of tips. Below are a few examples:

    • Travelling by train instead of plane if possible.
    • Selecting a venue that already supports sustainable practices.
    • Choosing a catering supplier that offers a meat-free diet, uses reusable eco coffee cups made from a sustainable material like bamboo, offers tap water in jars instead of plastic bottles, uses seasonal and/or local products, etc.
    • Asking participants in advance if they would like a full portion or half portion for the meals to avoid food waste.
    • Handing out reusable goodie bags.

    All in all, this workshop was a very enriching experience for me. I learned a lot and more importantly, it made me realize that moving towards virtual conferences and meetings is not only an option anymore but a necessity. Virtual meetings are powerful tools to ensure organizational continuity in emergency situations.

    In the time of the COVID-19 crisis, more and more countries around the world take extreme measures to prevent the spread of the virus. It results in universities, public administration, and private companies being closed. The “ordinary” practices of our daily work routines have changed considerably. We have to rethink how we structure our work, how we can be creative when sustaining productive interactions with colleagues through alternative channels and at the same time even keep up-to-date with research related to the current crisis. To do so, CWTS has been developing new ways of communication and working strategies over the past weeks:

    • Use of a new platform “Microsoft Teams” to exchange information.
    • Meetings are replaced by virtual meetings including a virtual plenary meeting every week with all employees.
    • Coffee chat every day at 10h and Friday afternoon drinks at 16h via Microsoft Teams.
    • Weekly email updates regarding the current working situation and the measures by the university.
    • Formation of project groups investigating research on COVID-19 to bundle efforts and ideas.

    To make sure that our remote work is being done in an efficient way, our managerial and ICT teams have been working amazingly hard. If we look back at these past weeks, we can be proud of our new way of working, with all the efforts, challenges and opportunities that come with it.

    Even though I believe that virtual meetings can never entirely replace face-to-face meetings, there is hope that things can change and that our daily work practices can contribute to a more sustainable world! And maybe, in the end, this current experience will have made us rethink the ‘normalcy’ we are so used to.


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