Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Virtual conferences are the new normal. A lot is being written and talked about on video conferences – about the advantages of the new virtual conferencing system. And some of these advantages are undisputed. For example, the climate footprint of virtual conferences is much better than that of conventional ones. No one has to travel – instead of using jet fuel, bandwidth is consumed.

Another point that is often cited as a plus for virtual conferences is greater social openness and improved inclusiveness. And can it really be denied that it is much easier to switch on the computer and attend a conference from your desk at home than to drive to another city and sit in a room for days on end? In addition to travel to and from the conference site, there are no costs for accommodation. Registration fees are usually much cheaper or even completely eliminated. Visa applications and costs are no longer an issue. So, the move to virtual obviously will open participation in a conference to people who could not participate before because of the costs and other issues involved with travel. But we should be aware that the absolutely welcome inclusion of some goes hand in hand with challenges for others. After all, participation in virtual conferences requires a great deal of commitment. And commitment usually means: time dedicated to it. 

Dedicated time is needed in preparation of conferences. During the pandemic, some conferences seem to really rush their participants through their pre-conference schedule. Short notice for calls for papers, for reviews, even for the conference itself. It’s not unseen that from calls for papers to the conference there are only some weeks. In fact, at least one of the authors is guilty of organizing such a rushed conference himself.

Dedicated time is needed during the conference. If you are at the physical venue of a conference, you are more or less officially disconnected from the daily business. Participants at the conference are expected to be there with their full attention – not only physically, but also mentally. Sure, you always have some people reading emails or going out for important phone calls in seemingly not so interesting talks. But this behaviour usually is frowned upon and no one would expect any different. It is this environment of concentration without interruptions and of intense contact with new opinions and insights that make conferences important venues for new developments. In the physical space, organisers help to isolate participants from distractions. No-one would host a conference for example at a train station in the middle of rush hour. In the virtual world, participants need to be able to take care of this, and we need to empower them to do so. 

Dedicated time is needed after the conference. Notes need to be collected, reports drafted, emails written, contacts confirmed and intensified. In physical meetings, these are things that often are done in spare time in the hotel, waiting for the train and waiting for the flight. In virtual meetings we need to set time apart for it. 

Another problem few organisers seem to think about: Physically being at a conference means you share the same time zone as all the other participants. Virtual conferences however may have people dialing in from all over the world, being and living in their local time zone. Your 10am start-of-the-day keynote thus may be their 11pm bedtime lullaby. If you don’t want to force some of your participants to get up at midnight, please provide the presentations as media that can be consumed at a later time, and please also offer asynchronous means of communication that do not force participants to be present all at the same time.

In times of the COVID-19 pandemic there is no reasonable alternative to virtual conferences. But we need to negotiate the new circumstances, under which we conduct academic events. Some conferences have to take place urgently, for example when it comes to fighting COVID-19. But this doesn’t apply for a lot of events. And we should discuss how we can create an environment in which it’s possible to participate in a conference from the office, be it at home or not. Distraction-free concentration in the home office is a precious resource in times of lockdown, even more so for people with care duties.

With that in mind, we summarize our main points as follows:

  • Participants need to dedicate sufficient and exclusive time for the preparation of the conference. Organisers, as well as participants’ work environment, need to value and accept that.
  • Do not expect virtual conferences or meetings to take less effort and time than physical ones. They may even require more time, if people are interrupted and cannot concentrate. 
  • Allow participants to create a distraction free environment for taking part in the event. This requires seeing virtual attendance as of equal value compared to physical attendance, and requires at least equal dedicated time budgets. 
  • Let participants invest sufficient and exclusive time for the post-processing of the event.
  • If participants might live in different time zones, organisers should provide all presentations and discussions in a form that is available at any time and does not require people to be present at the same time.

It’s about time to include some mindfulness in conducting academic events. These ideas can hopefully contribute to this. This is not a problem that anyone can solve for themselves. We need to work together.

DOI: Virtual Conferences Require Dedicated Time, Too. Christian Hauschke & Ingo R. Keck. Text published 2020 via Generation Research