Six Takeaways from a Virtual Conference Weekend

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Three days. Two virtual conferences. One head spinning with ideas.

That essentially sums up the recent weekend’s activities.

Imagine sitting in front of a laptop screen for three consecutive days attending online workshops, keynote presentations and education sessions. It was wall-to-wall education. By the end of three days, my head was throbbing with so many ideas, and my to-do list became as long as Merlin’s beard.

Virtual meetings have come a long way since the very first virtual set-up by AT&T in 1964. At that time, it was one closed-circuit TV screen connected to another in a different location. After the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the first virtual trade show was held in 1993. 

Then in the late 2000s, virtual conferences became more popular as the recession hit and companies looked for cost-effective ways to hold meetings for large groups of people. Today’s platforms are more sophisticated, allowing people from all over the world to gather in one virtual meeting place to listen to keynote speeches, attend online networking events, and meet one-on-one with clients or entire teams. There are more software and platforms available for online meetings than ever before.

AS the pandemic hit this spring, even more companies jumped on board, converting their in-person trade shows to the online platform, including Spring Fling 2020 which I had been looking forward to attending since the beginning of the year. Would the online presentation water down the conference experience? I answered that question this past weekend.

Below are my takeaways about my experiences with virtual conferences in general. In the near future, I’ll do more specific roundups of the individual conferences I attended hosted by Freelancers Union and Spring Fling 2020 (regional event of the Romance Writers of America).

Takeaway #1: The current pandemic crisis has made technology even more vital to our familial and collegial connections. Without technology tools and event platforms like Zoom, staying in touch with friends, family, colleagues and fellow volunteers would not be possible. Many platforms are fairly easy to use, even for novice users. Still both virtual conferences had their share of tech issues. Some speakers had difficulty staying connected to the platform while others experienced drop outs of sound and/or visuals. Some platforms work better with certain browsers over others. For example, the Accelevents conference worked better with Chrome than other browsers.

Takeaway #2: If you decide to attend a virtual conference, make goals for yourself about what you want to get out of it, just as you would if you were attending it in person. However, some feature may require more effort on your part. For example, if your goal is to meet at least three new people during the event, you might need to make the extra effort to attend the networking sessions since they occur in a separate hub, and most interactions aren’t likely to be by happenstance as they might be if you were there in person.

Takeaway #3: Pace yourself. There are as many sessions and workshops to attend during a virtual conference as there are at in-person events. It’s tempting to visit every one of them. If the experience becomes overwhelming, take a time out. Keep in mind your educational goals. That said, the nice thing about virtual events is you can jump from one session to another quickly without having to get up from your seat and move to another room.

Takeaway #4: Take good notes. There may not be handouts so make sure your notes are crystal clear. Since there are so many sessions, take time to review them a day or two later to refresh your memory. Even better, write one or two summaries of the sessions you attend and post them to a blog – just like I’ve done.

Takeaway #5: Chat rooms can be fun, but they can also be a distraction. It was fun to see the ongoing conversation going on in the chat room that ran alongside the presentation. Even the speakers would get involved in a side chat. It allowed for added interactivity that you might not get in an in-person event. The live chat also allowed participants to post questions, which speakers addressed at the end of the session. Still, it was tempting to get caught up in the commentary and lose track of what speakers were talking about. Other times, it was downright annoying, much like hearing people making snarky remarks about a movie that’s showing in a theater.

Takeaway #6: You can’t replace the energy of a live event. No matter how well planned the conference organizers make the event, it still feels like something is missing from the experience. In-person events seem to have a stronger collaborative energy. You can’t help but start conversations with people around you while you’re waiting for a session to start. You don’t get that with online events – or at least I didn’t. Sure, there is an ongoing chat during the sessions, but it’s more about commenting on what the speaker is presenting. Not sure if any of those chats led to a meaningful connection with a fellow attendee, however.

By the way, if you’re interested in participating in a virtual conference, check out WordPress.com’s Growth Summit event August 11-12, 2020 in the U.S. (No, I do not work for WordPress, but thought it was an interesting and timely item to share considering my topic today.)
 
Bottom line: You get out of a virtual conference what you put into it. I’ve always been interested in the education sessions rather than networking, so that’s where I put most of my effort. But if your goal is expanding your network, there are plenty of people to connect with at these virtual conferences.

With the end of COVID-19 nowhere in sight, virtual conferences will only get more commonplace. It will be interesting to see if they become a permanent fixture in the business world.

Have you ever attended a virtual conference? What was your experience like? Would you attend another one in the future?

Is a Co-Working Space Right for You?

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Whether you work as a freelancer or a remote employee, sometimes working at home or at a coffee shop just doesn’t fit the bill. What other options are there?

For many, co-working spaces – where for a fee you can reserve a desk or private office – is the ideal solution. Co-working spaces have become a BIG thing these days. A new one seems to open up each week.

As more and more individuals gravitate toward freelancing and working remotely, co-working spaces provide a place to work away from home without the long-term commitment or cost of a permanent office. But just like anything else, co-working spaces have their pros and cons.

Amenities
Pro: Co-working spaces offer numerous amenities, similar to what you might find in a typical office environment. You’ll find open desks, wi-fi, complimentary refreshments, and meeting rooms. Some larger co-working places may offer support services, workshops and networking events to help you with your business. If you want to treat your business as a business, not as a temporary hobby, working in a co-working space can put you in the proper mindset.

Con: There may be a limited number of private offices available for use, and usually at a higher cost than an open desk. Because of the limited supply of offices, they may not always be available when you need them. Open desks are usually available on a first-come, first-served basis, which means you take your chances that one will be available when you show up. It also means sharing those desks with other people, and transporting your own materials back and forth.

Cost:
Pro:  Co-working spaces offer a range of cost options, depending on how much you plan to use the space and in what capacity – from monthly fees to hourly rates and packages. Co-working spaces are more affordable than renting a commercial office. If you’re established in your business or if your employer is willing to pay for part or all of your rental expense, a co-working space may be a solid choice.

Con: Even at the lowest price range, co-working spaces can still be costly, especially if you don’t have a steady income or you’re just starting your business. Which is why many freelancers and remote workers opt for the local coffee shop or library.

Commuting:
Pro: Many co-working spaces are becoming more localized. Because so many are popping up within local neighborhoods, there may be one close to your home, accessible by walking or biking.

Con: Commuting distance may have been one of the reasons you left your former job in the first place, so commuting to a co-working space may not hold much appeal. You have to allow for travel time, traffic and the cost of transportation.

Community/Networking:
Pro: Many remote workers seek out co-working spaces for its networking potential, to connect with other remote professionals. You never know who you might meet there – a graphic designer to help you redesign your client’s logo, for instance. Many members of co-working spaces appreciate the sense of community that the space brings.

Con: While co-working spaces are great for building your network, they may not provide a lot of privacy. Since you are surrounded by other workers, the lack of privacy may be detrimental to your work.

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Working Around Others:

Pro: It can be difficult to work alone at home without anyone to talk to. Many freelancers and remote workers claim that the one thing they miss is the camaraderie of the office environment. Co-working spaces replicate the traditional office environment in that respect. Many remote workers prefer working in public places like coffee shops and co-working spaces because they like having people around while they work. They claim it helps them be more productive. If you want to break up the monotony of work, there is usually someone around to chat with.

Con: Along with the occasional productive conversations in a public office space, there’s also the potential for loud talkers and chatty, gossipy co-workers. It can be tempting to get caught up in lengthy conversations with other workers, distracting you from your work. You might overhear conversations that you prefer would be kept private. Regular users of co-working spaces suggest bringing a set of headphones to block out the noise and let people know you are too busy to converse with them.

Schedule:
Pro: Many co-working spaces operate nine to five, offering the same set schedule of operations as a typical office environment. So if you’re used to working a nine-to-five job, you can work a similar schedule in a co-working space.

Con: If you work at odd hours, are on a tight deadline or are part of a start-up, the traditional nine-to-five office schedule may not benefit you.

Business attitude:
Pro: A co-working space may put you in a stronger business mindset. Knowing you have a place to go once a week or more frequently helps you treat your business as a business and not as an interim hobby until a real job comes along. Because the co-working space provides meeting space, it’s a more professional setting to meet with clients than a coffee shop or your home.

Con: Even in a co-working setting, you may still be faced with the same temptations – daydreaming, staring out the window, browsing your favorite websites, reading your horoscope. As long as there is no one looking over your shoulder or checking in on you, there will always be the temptation to take lots of little breaks to get through your day. You need self-discipline to accomplish your daily tasks, no matter where you work.

As the population of remote workers and freelancers continues to grow, expect to see more co-working spaces open up to accommodate them. But co-working spaces are not for everyone. Know the pros and cons before you decide to invest in one.

Relevant Articles
6 Pros and Cons of Joining a Co-Working Space
Before You Commit to That Coworking Space, Know the Pros and Cons
Pros and Cons of Coworking Spaces

Four Fun Activities to Break the Ice at Networking Events

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Image courtesy of Hub Spot

Networking events can be tedious to attend, especially if you’re uncomfortable meeting new people. But they can be difficult to plan as well, particularly if the point of the event is to introduce participants to one another. It can be a challenge to come up with fun and innovative ways for participants to get acquainted.

In all the meetings and events I’ve attended over the years, a few have stood out for their sense of fun and creativity. That’s because the planners started off with an innovative ice breaker that set the tone for the evening.

Below are a few of those ice breakers. The next time you are faced with planning a networking event, experiment with one of these ideas. You can find other ideas by following the links at the bottom of this article.

1. The M&M Game 
As participants enter the room, invite them to grab a handful of M&Ms from a bowl. Once they are seated, have them set aside three individual candies of different colors, which will be used as part of their introduction. Before they introduce themselves, the leader will reveal a set of questions they must answer based on their three candy colors they chose. The questions can be personal or business-related. For example, a red M&M might mean: What do you hope to learn from this session? A green one might mean: What business are you in? You get the idea. This exercise puts a twist on the traditional introduction at the start of the session. Plus you get to eat the candies afterward.

2. Fill-in-the-Blank Index Card
Each participant is handed an index card with twelve boxes, each containing a clue. Using the clues as a guide, the participant’s task is to match a person with the clue. For example, the clue might be “has green eyes.” The task is to find someone else attending the event who has green eyes. That person will put their signatures on that square. Each participant must move around the room, getting signatures from other attendees that match the description on the card. For larger crowds, it might be helpful to have three or four different versions of the card. Other suggested clues: shoe color, hair color, traveled to Europe (or Asia or South America), has a dog, has a bird, plays tennis, reads comic books, practices yoga, has three or more kids, lives in a high-rise building, lives in the suburbs, drives a SUV, etc. Mix it up. The goal is to have the card completely signed by twelve different individuals. This exercise assures that everyone meets at least twelve people during the event. It’s a great way to build a network in a safe, fun environment. For more fun, offer a prize for the first person to complete their card before the program begins.

3. The “Who Am I?” Guessing Game
Especially fun for a more relaxed environment, such as a part or a picnic. As people arrive, put a piece of paper on their backs with the name of a celebrity or other famous personality. Since they won’t know who they are, their task is to figure it out by asking questions about their famous personality. But there are three rules: They can ask no more than twenty questions; the questions must be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’; the questions must be asked of twenty different people. For example, “Am I a female?”, and “Am I singer?” They keep asking questions until the answers add up to a complete picture of their character. Ideally, they will have met at least twenty individuals along the way. For more fun, you might consider offering a prize to the person who guesses who they are with the fewest clues.

4. Speed Networking
 Speed networking is just like speed dating, except you’re not looking for someone to date, but someone to do business with, offer your services to or hire for a position at your company. Mind you, I have never heard of or participated in a speed networking event, but hey, if it works for dating, why not for business networking?

Speed networking would work like this. When people arrive, they are divided into group A and group B, regardless of gender. Just like with speed dating, group A people will remain seated at each of the tables while group B switch seats as they move from one table to the next for each round of conversation. Allow a set period of time for conversation, say five minutes, before the bell sounds and the line moves on. Participants can always continue their conversations after the speed networking event. After two hours, imagine how many people you could add to your business network. Many of them may not fit your needs at that time, but keep their business cards. You never know when you might need to talk with them later. (Editor’s note: I’ve never participated in a speed networking event, though I’m sure there are events similar in nature.)

Networking doesn’t have to be all work and no play. With some ingenuity, you can help participants break the ice with each other and get your meetings off to a rollicking, productive start.

Related Articles:
20 Icebreakers to Make Your Next Meeting Fun
6 Icebreaker Games For Work That Your Team Will Love
The 10 Best Icebreaker Activities for Any Work Event