Organizing a virtual conference changed the way we think about academic exchange

Flying around the world to give a ten-minute presentation to an exhausted audience is a model long overdue for reform, say sustainability researchers Christina Bidmon, Cristyn Meath and René Bohnsack.
Christina Bidmon is a postdoctoral researcher at the Smart City Innovation Lab at Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics.

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Cristyn Meath is the sustainability research programme leader at the Australian Institute for Business and Economics, and a lecturer in strategy and corporate sustainability, both at the University of Queensland Business School in Brisbane, Australia.

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René Bohnsack is an associate professor for strategy and innovation at Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics, and the founder of its Smart City Innovation Lab.

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GRONEN 2020 on an iPad

Virtual conferences may become a supplement to — rather than a replacement for — real-life meetings.Credit: René Bohnsack

As organizers of a research conference, we faced a tough decision over COVID-19: do we cancel our three-day June event, or take it online?

We had planned to offer some virtual forms of participation for the biennial meeting of the Group of Research on Organizations and the Natural Environment (GRONEN), which would have brought together about 100 management scholars researching business sustainability.

Given this year’s discussion theme, ‘Sustainability in the Digital Age’, we had prepared to livestream some sessions from Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics.

Together with researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who had approached us with the idea of running a pilot study on the acceptability of virtual-reality (VR) conferencing, we had even built a 3D world for participants to try out attending such a conference, using a VR headset.

But going completely online presented a fundamental challenge: can you provide a ‘real’ conference experience, one that makes you feel like part of a research community and creates a sense of togetherness?

In our experience, delivering a ten-minute presentation and receiving two or three questions from an exhausted audience who have spent the day cooped up in a stuffy conference room does not warrant the hundreds of dollars on flights and the days away from our desks and projects. We still go, though, because of the value of the social part of a conference.

We decided to run GRONEN2020 virtually, and paid special attention to the social aspects. Although we think virtual events cannot replace meeting co-authors and colleagues face-to-face, this is how we tried to create an engaging virtual alternative.

Set up a conference platform

Instead of confining our programme to a list of Zoom sessions, we have set up a hub for people to meet and mingle. We could not find a conference-hosting platform with the functionalities we wanted, so we devised our own: Attendees can enter a virtual plaza where they are greeted by a chat bot, and can find an event hub with the programme overview. They can see which sessions are currently live and who else is online. They can post on a message board, replay sessions and share presentations, literature recommendations and other materials in a central repository.

GRONEN 2020 Virtual Thank you

A screenshot of a GRONEN 2020 coffee break.Credit: René Bohnsack

Mix-and-match participants

Because many people find it difficult to network at physical events, we set out to find formats that help with initiating contacts in virtual space. Our platform offers a roulette that randomly pairs people to chat with each other. It also matches people to discuss a current project they’re working on, on the basis of the key words they put in their online profiles; we send these people a message to suggest they book one of the virtual rooms, or open an impromptu chat to talk in private. Smart ways to facilitate online interaction might help to reduce some of the social awkwardness that can come up when initiating first contact. For a young PhD student, it might be less intimidating to join a discussion thread than to walk over to a group of senior scholars.

Don’t forget the fun factor

We asked ourselves what we treasure about conferences. Informal chats at receptions and attending social events and parties scored highly, so we have set up a virtual bar where people can share anecdotes about academic life, such as their first conference. We have created a virtual sightseeing tour through Lisbon and short pop-up quizzes for break times, and one of our colleagues will host an office yoga lounge. People’s online attention span is lower, so we think it is important to make not only the sessions but also the break times as playful and refreshing as they can be.

When COVID-19 hit, we optimistically thought, “We will take our conference virtual.” In the process, we’ve found that, instead of thinking of online conferences as replacements-by-necessity for physical conferences that should resemble the ‘real thing’, we should try to accept them as an entirely different model of academic exchange.

Maybe the conference year 2020 will help to spur the transition to more — and more fun — virtual meetings in addition to physical ones, beyond the coronavirus pandemic. After all, who would mind talking to colleagues and friends more often?

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01896-3

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