I have been a “remote first” worker for decades, so gathering together with colleagues at a conference is one of the best feelings. You deliberately take yourself away from the daily pressures of delivery and can take in the landscape of new technologies and how they relate to your world. Best of all, you get to do this face to face.
Lockdown poses some challenges to this. People with personality types that thrive on face-to-face contact are suffering. You can feel the general “flatness” amongst teams.
So what can we do to keep looking forward and break the day-to-day grind? Conferences!
There are conferences still happening, albeit remotely. Though they may be missing some of the physical attractions; the accumulation of like-minded people in a room, the festival feeling and the opportunity for in-person discussion, remote conferences are still great places for learning and development.
Here is our formula for making something to look forward to:
Publicise and evangelise
Pick a conference that resonates with your teams. It could be an AWS, Google or a Facebook conference. It might be a technology focussed conference like React Conf or Rails Conf, you know the ones. Research the conferences you and your team love to go to, as chances are they are still running remotely.
I’m in Australia so I like to pick conferences that are in our time zone. No one really likes to get up at 2 am for an American conference. Even though you could just watch the highlights on YouTube over lunch, you should aim to watch something live with your teams.
Announce them in the organisation’s Slack (or primary comms) channel and start getting people to commit to watching. Lock it in their calendar, it’s not free time, it’s a work commitment. We’re going to experience the conference together.
We are aiming for a shared experience, so create a room in your video conference app where people can congregate.
But a free for all conversation just doesn’t work, it’s like people talking at the movies.
Give someone the role of facilitator that can introduce the day and explain how everything is going to work. Set some rules like not talking while the talks are on and using chat messaging to discuss ideas – we do that at conferences anyway. Sharing the conference agenda and links to the wider group means that your team can plan their day and get excited about upcoming talks.
As the talks and questions begin to wrap up, gather the team together and kick off a Zoom meeting where everyone shares their initial thoughts on the talk and sparks some debate.
Bring the theatre!
You know the feeling that you get at a physical conference where you walk out, grab some snacks and try to find people to talk to? We’ve got our people in our team’s video conferencing app so why not bring the food theatre?
We like to order food deliveries for people who registered to join our in house conference with the strict rule of you can only open your food drop at morning tea break after the first session. Everyone sharing a food experience remotely is such a powerful way to bring people together.
Even if you can’t find the budget to send people some food, ask everyone to go grab a beverage and snack themselves and share what they chose. Make it festive!
These tips have worked for us and have helped us keep true to our learning and development (evolution) values. Every team is a little different and every conference is unique so direct your thinking around how you can nurture your team’s sense of belonging and how you can share learnings from the conference.
Don’t be put off by being remote, embrace it. Accept that things won’t be perfect and run a retrospective on the event, incorporate feedback and persist. It will be very appreciated by your teams.