Embrace the Virtual Conference

It might not be everyone's first choice, but with a little bit of foresight, a fully-remote conference can still be a positive experience.

Thousands of conferences have been canceled this year. Thousands more have gone ahead, but transitioned online. As we all do our level best not to be physically close to each other, we don’t want to lose the opportunity to share knowledge, have meaningful conversations, and advance our work — focusing on something positive in the midst of pandemic stress.

It can be hard to get excited about attending a 100% virtual conference. After all, some of the biggest perks of conferences — buffet tables, pyrotechnics, swag, networking, business cards (just joking about the business cards) — no longer apply. But having been to a couple of virtual conferences, from the comfort of my home, I’ve started to see some small upsides.

For a start, it helps to think of virtual conferences as their own “unique” experience type, rather than comparing them to their in-person equivalent. And secondly, this is an opportunity for many of us to access content that might otherwise have been beyond our reach. Many conferences are offering deep discounts this year, and we no longer have to pay for plane tickets or hotel rooms.

Read on for some tips to make the best of an (admittedly suboptimal) situation. And, if you’ve got some stories or suggestions to share, please do so in the comments.

1. Prepare.

Don’t procrastinate on physically setting up your space. When a conference is online, you don’t have the benefit of an introductory breakfast, or time to settle into your seat during a mic check. It’s harder to get into the mental zone. You may be launching straight into sessions off the back of other (virtual!) meetings, so it’s worth setting aside some time the night before to create an account to access the livestream, log into the conference’s Slack workspace, or onboard yourself to other tools they’ll be using. If you’re at home with children, identify which sessions you need to give your full attention versus those you can multitask to, and build a realistic schedule for the day.

2. Anticipate technical issues.

Even though conference organizers have made a ton of progress in recent months, running livestreams and handling remote facilitation is (still) fraught with tech difficulties. Sometimes the internet is going to bug out. Speakers’ audio setups will not be robust. People will accidentally be on mute or slide sharing won’t work.

If the tech failure is on your end, be proactive about asking for recordings after the fact. Most conferences make their content accessible for a defined period of time for just this reason. And if it’s on their end? Approach it all with a big dollop of grace.

3. Be a nomadic attendee.

There’s not a lot of physical variety in a virtual conference. You won’t be switching rooms or heading to a breakout, you’ll be staring at your screen all day. But that doesn’t have to mean being stuck in your chair. If space allows, change your backdrop. Watch a talk from the couch or lying on your bed. (Or under your bed, if that’s your jam.) Project the presentation on your big TV screen to mirror being in an auditorium, or head outside for a virtual networking sesh.

4. Don’t multitask.

This is the hardest one, isn’t it? We’ve all got other work going on in the background, and it’s hard to switch off from it. But you’re not going to be able to make the most of the conference you or your employer has likely paid good money for if you’re responding to emails and messages. Unless a project is on fire, mark yourself Out of Office and communicate availability with your team so you can focus.

5. Try to participate in real time.

A lot of conferences make all their materials available to attendees asynchronously, which is very convenient. But watching everything after the fact means you miss out on any interactivity. Since other attendees — and yes, their incessant comments in Slack — are a huge value add to any virtual conference, try to attend sessions as they’re happening, and challenge yourself to take part in some small way. That might mean asking a question a day or making sure you connect with a speaker on LinkedIn.

6. Play it loud, play it proud.

If you have wireless headphones, this is a great opportunity to use them. But since the audio flows one way in many of these virtual conferences, i.e. only out of your computer speakers and not vice versa, you don’t have to worry about your background noise. Grab your laptop, take it to the garden, crank up that audio, and listen while gardening. Dial in while on a walk. Slides are good, but often optional, and you can always take a look afterwards if you’re feeling FOMO.

7. Give yourself breaks, even when the schedule doesn’t.

Most conference organizers are sensitive to the fact we all need to stretch our legs and use the bathroom from time to time. (Yay, no lines!) But they’re also prone to say “just one more question” and shorten the breaks by five minutes. Give yourself permission to take those breaks when you need them. It’s important to stay rested, hydrated, and have an empty bladder if you’re going to absorb any of the content. A nice lunch and a happy hour beer might also help!

8. Don’t try to attend all the things.

Which reminds me, watching 4 back-to-back sessions might well leave you with brain mush. It’s OK. You really don’t have to. Think about the concept of elegant sufficiency when picking what to attend. Don’t expect to make it to 100% of the sessions just because you technically can. Figure out your must-have and nice-to-have sessions so you don’t feel the pressure to go to them all. 

9. Revel in introversion.

If you find the small talk aspect of conferences cringy, relish the fact you don’t have to talk to a single person at an online event. If you want to seek out connections, they’re there for the making — but you won’t have any awkward moments alone at the merch table wondering how to start a conversation with someone. It’s also totally acceptable to not get excited about the remote karaoke or remote yoga segments. Those are for the extroverts.

10. Keep up the momentum.

It’s easy for the insights you gained at an online conference to get drowned out by the noise of routine. It’s not a landmark calendar event in the same way as an in-person conference you travel to. Indeed, without any time earmarked for traveling home afterwards, you don’t have an obvious opportunity to reflect and internalize what you’ve learned. Get over this hump by writing up a couple of high value takeaways to share with your team, or publish a blog post about them.

Becky Radnaev

Becky is a User Experience Designer who found her way from Wales, UK, to our office in Boulder, CO. She loves telling human-centered stories and appreciating the hidden design in everything.

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