Dean Richard Franza’s column appeared in the Sunday, March 14 edition of the Augusta Chronicle. The post can be viewed here.
During the last week of February, I “attended” a conference that I have gone to every February since 2017. The conference is for deans of collegiate business schools, and it has become one of my favorite conference experiences. Last year, the conference was held in Nashville, Tenn., and it was a great combination of informative presentations, excellent networking opportunities and a time to catch up and learn from old and new friends and colleagues.
Because of the pandemic, this year’s conference was held “virtually” (i.e., remotely; at a distance), and the experience was much different. However, that is not to say that different was all bad.
I can say that this has been true for many of the accommodations we have made in business and education because of the pandemic. While some of these changes are just to allow us to get through the pandemic, there are others that will carry forward to improve how we conduct conferences, meetings and business operations in the future.
Shortly after attending the four-day conference, I talked to a friend and mentor who is a leader of the organization that staged it, and we discussed the pros and cons of the virtual offering. One thing we agreed upon is that the sessions, for the most part, were still very good and up to the standard of “in-person” sessions. While sessions typically had to be repeated at least a second time to account for numerous time zones, they were engaging and informative. Also, it was nice to “attend” the conference but still be at my home at night.
The biggest negative of a remote conference was the inability to network with colleagues you only see maybe one to three times a year in a non-pandemic environment, and the informal learning that comes over lunch and cocktails was completely lost.
Because the conference was held remotely, many costs of staging it were eliminated, such as meals, social events and rental space, and consequently, the registration fee for attending was a little more than half of the price of previous years. When I perused the attendance list for this year’s virtual event, I found that many attendees from previous years, who find the most value in the personal interactions, decided not to attend.
On the other hand, I did see that there were now more attendees from smaller schools who typically did not have the budget to cover both the higher registration fee and travel costs for airfare and hotel rooms.
So, what did we learn from the remote conference? We learned that in the future, it would probably be beneficial to still have an in-person version for those who have the budget and seek the value provided by personal interactions, but at the same time allow remote attendance for anyone who lacks the budget and/or the time to be there in person, whether synchronously as the meeting occurs or by having videos of sessions available at a later date.
These lessons can also be applied to the many meetings we all attend as part of our jobs. (An aside: I first became an academic administrator when my daughters were turning 8 and 6. They understood what I did as a professor because it was similar to their teachers in school. When they asked me what I did as an administrator, I told them that I saved the world, one meeting at a time!)
While there has been much discussion of the downsides of virtual meetings, such as “Zoom fatigue,” the lack of personal interaction, potential technology failures and personal faux pas (e.g., muted/unmuted mics, inappropriate behavior on camera), there are some important benefits. These benefits include the convenience and saving of time from not having to commute, which allows more people to participate and makes it easier to have shorter and more frequent meetings when needed.
I think you will see people considering much more of a mix of virtual and face-to-face meetings, which will typically happen only when personal interaction is necessary and valuable.
We can all agree that the pandemic has been bad in so many ways, from negatively affecting our physical and mental health to causing both individual and corporate economic distress. But as we have attempted to soldier on, we have learned some methods and techniques of doing business that will continue to be emphasized to varying degrees post-pandemic:
- Working from home and other remote locations
- More curbside pickup and delivery; not just restaurants, but also retailers to better compete with online giants
- Emphasis on health, wellness and quality of life
- Digital learning (scalability is the big driver here)
- Emphasis on risk management
Fortunately, with the emergence of vaccinations, we may be looking at a return to many of our pre-pandemic ways in the very near future. I know this is a great relief for all of us, particularly those in industries most affected by it. However, as we transition back to a more “normal” time, do not forget to examine the impact of the lessons learned above to make your business better able to take advantage of better times.