As most – but not all – of the world transitions to a ‘post-covid’ era, more and more conferences are switching back to in-person only events. But are we losing great opportunities with this to be more intentionally inclusive of the wider community? Remote working and online/hybrid events showed us that we can open the doors to more people to participate, reduce our carbon footprints and still keep the learning going.
This post is food for thought on limitations of the enthusiastic return to ‘the old ways’, and some possibilities to be more inclusive moving forwards. It is inspired by people I follow and learn from across the fields of education, science, journalism, conservation, computing and more. I think we can do better.
Tuning-In: What Do You Notice, What Do You Wonder?
Take a moment to look at these Twitter searches:
There is a sense of celebration in the first link, as people are excited to finally be ‘together again’, meeting missed colleagues after years of separation. But this is true for who? What about the second link? In the ‘old ways’ of doing things, the doors were closed to so many people. During the remote years, there was hope and inclusion – the doors were open to a greater diversity of participants and contributors.
Are The Doors Closing Again?
When conferences are online, or include remote/hybrid options, more of our fellow humans can be included, valued and be equal participants and contributors. Just a few examples, in no order of importance or hierarchy, and there are many more:
- Fellow humans who are immunocompromised or unsafe in large gatherings.
- Fellow humans whose organisations can’t support their travel.
- Fellow humans whose identity is not safe in the host country or city.
- Fellow humans who cannot access travel or conference venues due to physical disabilities.
- Fellow humans who might find large, intense, extroverted gatherings difficult.
- Fellow humans who come from under-represented or traditionally excluded communities.
- Fellow humans who cannot afford the ticket price, accommodation, travel and other costs.
- Fellow humans who cannot get visas to country of the ‘global’ gathering.
- Fellow humans who have family or caring situations that mean they can’t take time away.
- Fellow humans whose work is at a critical point or a remote location that means they can’t leave for an extended period.
- Fellow humans who are still under travel restrictions as the pandemic is not over.
- Fellow humans who work independently and cannot afford to invest their small company/organisation’s resources in excessive travel for one participant.
- Fellow humans who are too young to travel independently – children whose agency we are so often discussing and who have a lot to offer conference of those discussing their futures.
- Fellow humans who are actively trying to reduce their environmental impacts.
To many people, the enthusiastic return of in-person only events represents an act of exclusion. The closing of doors that were just being opened.
“Covid-19 Will Change The Way We Do Things”
There was a time over the last few years to ‘reimagine X/Y/Z’. A calling to rethink the ‘old ways’ as the VUCA-world has ‘forever changed the way we do things’. Has it really? We can do better and dream bigger, to be more intentionally inclusive.
The pandemic has shown us that the technologies and expertise exist to make this work. Yes, Zoom fatigue is real, but being inclusive of the wider community does not mean compromising the experience of those fortunate enough to be able to attend in person. Inclusion is not subtractive. The means exist if the will is there, and conference organisers can take small and large steps to leverage them. Where in-person conference tickets can run to hundreds of dollars each, for sometimes thousands of participants, organisations can afford to make the small investments needed.
Some examples, again non-exhaustive, and other experts might have better ideas:
- Employ an inclusion advocate on the planning committee and pay them for their time and expertise.
- Leverage the affordances of the (seemingly infinite) conference platforms for agendas and social connections.
- Have a ‘virtual concierge’ at the event who interfaces with remote participants to ensure they are included and represented in real-time. Some of the conference app providers might have paid extension services to manage this for your conference.
- Live-stream and record keynotes, panels and high-interest sessions for remote attendants. Give them away for free if you can.
- Have a ‘remote room’ where presenters and facilitators who are not there in person can still be given the stage, share their expertise and interact with in-person participants.
- Actively encourage in-person attendees to interact with remote participants in chat features.
In the simplest execution, some of these solutions just need a handful of videoapp-competent people on the ground. And that’s pretty much everyone now, because of the last few years.
Conferences Can Be Better
I hope that after this initial enthusiasm of the return of in-person only events has subsided, organisations reflect on how to be more intentionally inclusive in the design of their events and to make appropriate investments to take real action. I would love to see some of the upcoming events already planned make the decision to be more inclusive right now; to re-open the doors that are closing. Keep asking the question – “who is not included here?”.
If you are an organisation that is making these moves already, or you know some who are, I’d love to know more. Please add your link or comment on LinkedIN.
Image Description: A watercolour painting of a person with a backpack, with their back to the viewer, looking out of a window towards a sunset over a forest. The foreground shows a lot of open and stacked books. Generated in Midjourney AI, using the prompt “learning is a transformative experience which is intentional and iterative, challenging and joyful, and serves an authentic purpose”.