Conferencing from the Couch: Best practices for hosting and attending virtual conferences and meetings

Hello CREE community! We want to begin this blog post by saying that our team is thinking of those affected by COVID-19, as well as wishing everyone a safe and healthful journey during these unprecedented times.

Speaking of those times of social distancing, I’m sure we have all been affected by the recommendation to remain distanced in one way or the other, whether that’s having community stores temporarily closing for business, cancelling personal plans, or, a popular one among many—working from home. For some, they may be excited for this endeavor at home; others may feel uncertain about the ins and outs of the process and may find it difficult to adjust to the new virtual space they are in.

If you are looking for help in navigating this unknown, have no fear because CREE is here to fill in gaps for you from our experiences. Our past conference, Insight Summit 2020, was our first experience hosting an in-person conference that simultaneously had a virtual ticket option. In addition, our CREE team also works remotely from each other more often than not, as we are distributed across Kansas, Minnesota, and Florida.

In this blog post, you can expect to find best practices for hosting and attending remote conferences and meetings. At the end of the post, we also want to hear from YOU! To better our recommendations and practices, we are looking to gather others’ knowledge and perceptions regarding virtual conferencing and meetings. If you have had to change your normal routine (in-person to virtual) in light of recent developments going on in the world, we ask you to please leave your thoughts in the comments section, so we can provide even better information and resources to our CREE community.

To provide clear and concise recommendations, we have broken down best practices into two separate categories: 1) conferences and 2) meetings. Furthermore, we have broken down conferences into best practices for hosting and best practices for attending.

Our lessons were learned from our virtual Insight Summit, but we believe that our learning was timely enough to help all of you that may be working out virtual kinks due to the COVID-19 changes we are experiencing together.

Hosting Virtual Conferences

Tell yourself you can host a virtual conference. Our team was unsure of the logistics and if it would be successful, but we are here to say, it can be done and it can be a great addition to incorporate into your organization/program/conference. We hosted our conference through Zoom, which has plans for different participant and time limits.

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This was our virtual ticket headquarters where Phillip Stokes, CREE Insight Summit team member, kept all technological aspects of the conference running smoothly. This is also where our other CREE team members worked and joined virtual participants for troubleshooting and answering questions.
  • Wherever the conference is being hosted from, be cognizant of white noise and video backgrounds. Provide participants with tools to create a virtual background or send a pre-established background for them.
    • During our conference, we were unable to shut down an atrium-type area where there was foot traffic that, at times, caused unwanted and distracting noise.
    • Along the same lines, make sure virtual attendees are aware of their video background and that they may be displaying their screen to the rest of the conference during some sessions when we hear from everyone “around the room.” Set the expectation up front that they will be visible to other participants so they can address their personal appearance accordingly.
  • Establish how people are going to present in your conference (in groups or single person alone). If you are hosting a group or have presenters in person, room microphones can be super helpful to mitigate this issue.
    • During our conference, there were times where two or more people were trying to speak or present. With only a couple cameras on the front of the room, this proved to be an obstacle for virtual participants to distinguish which voice belonged to whom, where it was coming from, and general hearing difficulties.
    • Room microphones can help relieve issues, such as repeating questions from in-person participants, so that virtual attendees can also hear the question instead of just the answer from the presenter.
    • If room mics aren’t an option, the presenter(s) must move around the room for the session, and/or if the session involves props that are really only beneficial to in-person participants, consider having a counter activity or session for virtual participants.
  • If possible, prep your attendees in the virtual room by videoing the room beforehand, so they can see what the setup is, how many people are there, get acquainted with in-person participants, etc.
    • For us, this really wasn’t possible due to the conference being held away from our team that worked on logistics. It can be difficult to prepare for technology in your in-person conference room when you are far from the conference location.
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Alena Poulin, a CREE Insight Summit team member adjusting the camera angle for virtual participants during Dr. Troy McKay’s presentation.
  • Determine break times and start times from the get go and try your best to stick to them.
    • We suggest determining break times, such as for lunch, before the conference. Send this information to your virtual attendees, so they know how exactly long they will have in between sessions and can prep accordingly. Think about your audience when determining time, i.e. will your audience truly be able to start the conference at 8 a.m. or will there be attendees filtering in throughout the first hour?
    • It is also important to think about audience members in different time zones. In every piece of communication with participants, be sure to add the time zone so there is never confusion with virtual participants tuning in from afar.
  • Providing more details is always better.
    • It may seem like you are being excessive with details to your virtual participants, but it is so important. If you are placing them into breakout rooms in Zoom to talk amongst their group, even letting them know if you will pull them into the main conference room or if they need to re-join it on their own is an important detail.
  • Have a content-focused organization member present during virtual interactions at all times.
    • This can eliminate the relay of information from person to person, if there is just one person with conference content knowledge available to virtual participants. Depending on the size of the virtual attendee group, you may need more than one of these.
  • Consider your audience and your content when decided what and how sessions should be done virtually.
    • We had a session over Facebook analytics during our conference. Looking back, we considered doing a pre-recorded or completely separate session for virtual participants, as the environment can get messy with everyone trying to follow the session steps and use technology. We also discussed hosting virtual participants in smaller groups for this analytics session with one content-focused CREE team member to assist the smaller group. This is an important piece to figure out depending on the level of your content and virtual learners.
  • Think about how you will share your files with virtual participants.
    • We have given flash drives to all in-person participants with our files for the conference. Now that we have hosted virtual conferences, we used Google Drive to share files. Other file sharing sources could be used, but it is important to note that with systems like Google Drive, your files should be “Read Only,” so participants cannot alter your file for everyone in the Google Drive.
    • On that note, have back up plans! Sometimes strange things can happen with the uploads of files, so it is super important to have a backup strategy on how you will get participants needed files.
  • Determine how you expect your virtual conference participants to behave in the online space.
    • During our reflection on our conference, we frequently went back and forth between the idea of the conference being fully engaging and making virtual participants a part of all the things or participants casually attending, turning off the camera, and working simultaneously. Determine how you expect participants to behave in the virtual world and what they should expect during the conference.
    • Questions your organization may ask when developing the online portion of the conference: Why do your participants want/need the virtual ticket? How much value do our participants place on interaction and engagement of the conference?

Many of these pieces can be established and relayed through a conference “Welcome” prep packet that is emailed to participants beforehand. Things to include could be: pre-conference survey (to establish software needed, expectations, details, gather questions), how to create a virtual background or a pre-established virtual background, any resources you want them to be acquainted with during the conference (files, data, software), online etiquette rules of the conference, etc.

We recommend sending these pieces in your conference prep packet a couple weeks prior to the conference, so attendees can have time to prepare their requirements and become accustomed to the content. We’ve also considered doing these “Welcome” packet pieces as videos for our participants and what they need to be successful during the conference.

Attending Virtual Conferences

Participating in an in-person conference from a distance poses some unique benefits and challenges. This is not a webinar, in which all participants are connected online, but rather can be a “fly-on-the-wall” situation. Depending on the expectations set by the conference facilitators, virtual participants can be fully engaged and interacting with one another or with in-person attendants, or they can be watching and listening without any engagement throughout the conference.

To get the most out of a virtual conference ticket, be fully engaged. The following tidbits might help create a richer experience for virtual attendants:

  • Clear your schedule.
    • If you were attending the conference in person, you would likely have canceled or moved any of your recurring meetings and finished urgent projects before you left. Why treat a virtual ticket differently?
    • Set your out of office message for your email, so you are not tempted to check your email throughout the day or feel guilty for not responding right away.
    • Ensuring your schedule is free of the “normal” work day distractions will help you get the most out of the conference. Otherwise, you may have to log out for a meeting and miss a crucial piece of knowledge that you need for the rest of the conference.
  • Do some pre-work about the conference content and expectations.
    • It is likely that the conference facilitators will send emails to you in the days or weeks leading up to the conference. Read every detail they send. Watch videos they include. Because you are not going to be able to talk to them in person at the start of the conference, these details may be crucial in getting you set up, downloading the right software or files that you will need for the conference, or understanding the expectations the facilitators have of you before you even begin.
    • Read through the agenda beforehand. While this may be helpful in deciding whether or not to even register for a virtual ticket, having an idea about the sessions in which you are particularly interested will be beneficial for you especially if you have one of those meetings or phone calls that you cannot postpone.
    • Familiarize yourself with the video conferencing software being used. If the conference is using software that you have not used before (e.g., Zoom), download the software, watch tutorial videos, and familiarize yourself with the software’s features before the conference begins. It will be difficult for you to engage with the conference content if you spend most of your time trying to figure out how to work the video conferencing software.
  • Test out your equipment.
    • Before the conference begins on the first day, log in early. Test out your internet connection, webcam, microphone and speakers to ensure everything on your end is working correctly and setting yourself up for a pleasant experience.
    • Have a back-up plan. If you go to log in and realize a neighbor is mowing the lawn, your internet drops out, or there is a fire drill in your building, have another location in mind that you could move to if the need arises, so you can still get the experience you paid for even with a minor setback.
  • Think through meals and/or snacks.
    • It is likely that the in-person participants will have food catered or have a plan to eat. However, as a virtual participant, you will not have access to the catered food. Pay attention to the schedule and have a plan in place for food to be delivered at a certain time, or heat up leftovers, or be ready to make a quick sandwich. The time that the in-person participants have to eat the catered meal is the time you have to both make food and eat it before the next session begins.
    • Having some snacks readily available and accessible for you as a virtual participant is still a good idea.
  • If possible, participate with a buddy.
    • If you know another person that is interested in the conference, encourage them to participate virtually with you. Even if you are not located in the same place while logging into the conference, it is helpful to have another person to which you can informally ask questions, work together on group work, or take notes if one person needs to step out.
  • Immerse yourself in the experience as much as possible.
    • Prepare to spend the entire conference time engaged with your webcam on. The more you actively engage with the content, the more you will get out of the experience.
    • Take notes, work through the conference workbook if one is available, test out some of the knowledge you are learning, and speak up when you have questions. You are just as much of a participant in the conference as someone who is physically present, so make sure you are getting the best experience possible. 
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This is one of our virtual participants, Ernest Jones, sharing his response during a session. Using Zoom allowed us to easily incorporate distance learners into the conference’s engagement pieces.

Virtual Meetings

We are all now in a unique situation where virtual meetings will become commonplace. Our CREE Team has been meeting virtually for years now, and we’ve learned a thing or two. First of all, consider your workspace and try to create a setup with a quality webcam (most built-in ones are fine), microphone (we like the Yeti-Blue microphone), and—if at all possible—a hardwire connection to the internet. Lighting will make a big difference in how others perceive you in an online meeting. Try to either sit next to windows or place task lighting behind your screen to brighten your face.

If you are just getting started working from home, call up a friend on Zoom and talk each other through your settings. Does the microphone sound better when I place it here…or here? Can you see my face better if the light is like this…or like that?

Run all the updates on your software: operating system, word-processing software (etc.), and Zoom. Run all the updates on Zoom to make sure you have the latest features. If you don’t want other people to see your home workspace, upload a virtual background (or several). We recommend photos of something related to your area of expertise. For example, co-founder Cheryl Boyer has images of nurseries, garden centers, and landscapes for her virtual backgrounds.

Planning to run a virtual meeting is just as important as planning an in-person meeting. Create an agenda and set expectations for the tone, content, and length of the meeting. Ask yourself if this meeting could be an email—at some point we may all be struggling with online meeting fatigue and reducing meetings will help us accomplish thought-driven work.

Allow the first 10 minutes of the meeting for chit-chat. We will all need time for socializing and connection in this era of remote work. If there are unrelated discussions happening, take the conversation offline (text or email) or plan a separate meeting if it’s a larger issue that needs to be addressed. Use other virtual tools in between to remain connected = NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE A MEETING.

During the meeting talk about what’s going on, set goals/deliverables, report, and provide lots of feedback. Start and end on time.

Determine how often each team needs to meet. The CREE team has a long-standing weekly meeting, currently Tuesday mornings. Newer teams setting meetings can pick a time for their weekly meeting with the understanding that it can be shifted as needed and that if we need a quick check in at any time we can use the Zoom link in the regular weekly calendar invitation. Speaking of, use the calendar invite system within email and sync it to whatever calendar your family uses. I prefer the Outlook desktop app which syncs to iCal where I can color code family stuff, work meetings, and planned tasks.

You might not need to meet with every team that weekly—think through what will be adequate for each team and keep in mind some team members may need a social check in more frequently. Be an excellent communicator. Don’t let yourself get lonely—do Zoom lunches/coffee/teatime/happy hour with friends and colleagues.

Finally, give yourself some grace while we all find a new rhythm—things may never be exactly how we would each like. Please share what you guys have figured out works for you right now (or doesn’t work and we’ll trouble shoot with you) in the comments! We look forward to hearing from our community.

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