After more than two years of virtual conferences and seminars, we’re lining up to attend events in person – and no one complains if there’s a queue!
“There are so many things that can’t be said or done over Zoom,” says Maroš Servátka, professor of economics at Macquarie University Business School (MQBS) and founder of the Experimental Economics Laboratory. “You have to meet your colleagues and friends in person and share lunch, share a beer – it’s where the creative ideas really happen.”
“People are so excited to be back in person – you can see it from the smiles on their faces,” says Mary Sparksman, a councillor with the Professional Conference Organisers Association (PCO) and managing director and founder of YRD Event Management.
Sparksman was speaking from Queenstown, New Zealand, where some 170 specialists were meeting at the Millennium Hotel, the first international conference she’d helped organise since before the pandemic. The registration website for the meeting celebrated that its “members can now travel abroad, spread our wings and be educated”.
“The president of the association holding this meeting told me that the friendships and intellectual stimulation you gain from being in person at an event can’t be matched over Zoom,” says Sparksman. “Then he added, ‘I hate to say it, but also the gossip! All the things that we haven’t heard for a couple of years!’”
Getting the collaborative juices flowing
There’s enough research to fill several conference agendas that shows people work better together when they have had the opportunity to be in the same room, because personal connection improves collaboration.
“One of the largest challenges within organisations is how to get people to cooperate and coordinate,” says Servátka. “If you can provide a theoretical solution that can be applied universally, you’ll win a Nobel Prize. If you can solve it in practice, you’re going to be a multi-millionaire!”
Jokes aside, Servátka says research into people working in teams shows that they cooperate better when they have a sense of unity fostered by being part of a group. To study cooperation, he and his coauthor Hodaka Morita performed an incentivized experiment in the Experimental Economics Laboratory, with subjects dressed in T-shirts in two different colours and then paired randomly to make financially motivated decisions.
Although the study was anonymous, participants knew if they were wearing the same coloured T-shirt or not. “We found cooperation between individuals sky-rocketed when they knew they were wearing the same colour and previously received help from their team members,” he says.
“This explains a lot about why companies see the value of organising company retreats and employee events,” continues Servátka. “The ultimate goal is to enhance cooperation and coordination. The results of the research experiment explain why team-building events make so much sense from an economic standpoint. We see a massive improvement in the performances of organisations, or groups of business associates, when they are able to be together physically for training or education.”
Making the effort to be together in person is also an important trust ritual. “Think about the executives who fly to the other side of the world to meet, look each other in the eye and shake hands when they sign a contract,” says Servátka. “Clearly, they could sign the contract online. From an economist’s perspective, the opportunity cost of having your highest-paid employees out of the office for a period of time is considerable. But that human interaction to seal a deal is worth it – our research shows a handshake agreement is incredibly powerful.”
An end to virtual access
It’s tough for delegates trying to stay focused for a full day on Zoom, but it has been a whole world of pain for event organisers who’ve had to run conferences as though they were outside broadcast operations.
“We had to become production managers overnight,” says Sparksman. “We’ve all developed new skills, but it wasn’t why I got into this business. The run sheets for a virtual event are detailed down to the second, and the minute something goes wrong, people start messaging in the chat box. You were constantly on edge and would have to be completely focused for the whole six or eight hours. When it was over, there was no reward of getting together with the team for a glass of bubbly or a cold beer to celebrate a job well done. You’d actually feel really down.”
Sparksman says she’s now actively discouraging virtual access to in-person events. “I am saying, ‘You can have virtual access, but it will be 10 days after the event, and you’ll only get slides with voice, no camera visuals, and you’ll pay the same as you would pay to attend the conference in person’. The cost of delivering virtual events is huge and you have to double your staff.”
As happy as delegates are to be back together in person, Sparksman says there’s been a shift away from wanting to attend events that break into weekends.
“COVID-19 made us all realise how important family is, and that it isn’t all about work,” she says. “Events that we would previously have arranged over a Friday and Saturday are moving to Thursday and Friday, so we’re not taking people away from families. Before 2020, I think sometimes we were all so caught up in work that we forgot that people are the most important part of our lives.”