Reimagining conferencing – Organizing the #OSSW20 Sustainably

Since 2006, the journal Organization Studies – one of the key journals in the field of management research – runs an annual summer workshop devoted to exploring a particular theme capturing current theoretical developments in organization studies, often in relation to relevant empirical phenomena. Recent examples were “Food Organizing Matters” or “Spirituality, Symbolism, and Storytelling”. The format is small and intimate. Usually, over a few days in May, around 150 international researchers come together to present and discuss their work, network, and advance their thinking. The workshop theme then forms the basis for a special issue in the journal.

This year’s theme was and is “Organizing Sustainably”, with the main idea to “go beyond established ways of thinking about sustainability and towards understanding how new forms of organizing can contribute to the sustainable usage of environmental, social, and economic resources in ways that avoid their degradation and exhaustion through models that will themselves be enduring”. Of course, we also wanted to make this year’s summer workshop as sustainable as possible. We decided upon several measures such as offering only vegetarian food, avoiding plastics (no badges, no bottles, no goodies) and – now we can tell you – turning off the air-conditioning at the conference venue, itself a place with high sustainability credentials. There was a big elephant in the room though: everyone would have to fly to Crete, a beautiful island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. We were in the process of setting up a carbon offsetting scheme by which conference participants could support a local project that would help Greece, and Crete in particular, in addressing social challenges such as the refugee crisis or fostering energy efficiency in the tourism sector. We also discussed virtual participation options, especially since several colleagues that have been doing research on sustainability for several years approached us critically by saying they would not submit a paper because they did not want to fly to Greece. There were a few obstacles: long-term commitments with a much-loved venue, unstable internet connections and the need to cover conference-organizing expenses through the conference fee. The Covid-19 crisis removed these obstacles for us – we had to either cancel the workshop or move fully virtual.

This was not an easy decision to make, also because for the majority of conveners this was their first self-organized virtual conference of a larger scale ever. After all, the summer workshop lives off being a rather intimate and secluded space for open and intense discussions. Not having a strong wireless connection was usually considered as an asset: scholars could fully focus on their research, temporarily switching off from their many other obligations. Was it really worth the effort – with no professional backing and our own various problems in dealing the Covid-19 crisis situation – to move the workshop online? Would we be able to ‘replicate’ the workshop spirit, or would it turn out to be an unsatisfying cheap copy? Would people even turn up? But in the light of our workshop’s theme, we felt obliged to dive into this new experience and use the situation as a unique opportunity to try out new practices. Maybe we would even discover new technological ‘affordances’ and ways of interacting?

The workshop turned out to be a great success. Over two and a half days, we were able to create a fruitful conference atmosphere – a positive collective experience for ourselves as conveners and for our participants. This was apparent through direct feedback from participants, varying between enthusiasm and encouragement, as well as through a survey we conducted after the workshop, in which 81 people participated (74 of the 82 participants of the virtual conference and 7 of the remaining 58 author teams that were originally admitted to the workshop but could not participate in the virtual event). When asked about the benefits of the virtual format, two aspects really stood out: the technological affordances themselves, as well as the opportunities arising from saving the travel time both in resource efficiency and energy efficiency terms. These enabled greater inclusiveness, environmental sustainability and new possibilities for interaction.

  • Inclusiveness: Several attendants stressed that their coauthors that usually wouldn’t have been able to attend the conference due to budget constraints or family obligations could participate thanks to the virtual format. “I cannot travel all the time (for practical but also financial reasons) so it is nice to be able to be able to join more events rather than having to select just 1 or 2 annually and hope they will be good” was an exemplary statement on this topic. Many people stressed that “It saves you a lot of time if this is done virtually, no travel time, no commuting in the locality”, and particularly for colleagues with care duties as well as higher teaching and administrative load, time is a central issue. These colleagues have less time for research as it is, and typically then face further disadvantages in the ‘publication game’ by being less present and visible on the international academic community’s front stages due to time and resource constraints. Furthermore, the technology, particularly the chat function in Zoom, which allows people to post real-time messages to others in the session, led to “More engagement in the plenary sessions” and “The opportunity to participate was increased using chats”, making it easier for people that maybe would have been shy to raise their voice in a physical plenary format for various reasons, such as lack of seniority or English not being one’s main language, to make their voices heard.
  • Environmental sustainability: It is a no-brainer that saving an international trip is not only more time-efficient, but also more environmentally friendly. “Not having to travel and pollute” was mentioned as a major benefit of the virtual format by many respondents.
  • New opportunities for interaction: We started off the event with a kick-off discussion on “Organizing Sustainably in Academia”, in which we presented results from a survey we conducted before the start of the conference to identify people’s main sustainability concerns in our work context and then put people randomly in breakout groups to discuss possible solutions. This session was perceived by many as an unusually interactive and productive start to a conference which set the tone for collaborative work throughout.

In sum: “It was a far more relaxed atmosphere doing this from home. You have similar engagement during discussion sessions and keynotes, but you are less exhausted afterwards – no travelling, no navigating through a new city, no hotels, your own bed and meals and once the day is over you can relax immediately. Also the group activity in the opening session is not usual for such a big event and was happening very smoothly. Well organized.”

Of course, these benefits were accompanied by some drawbacks, which indicate virtual conference modes cannot simply replace physical meet-ups and exchange. Rather, a key task for the future will be to reimagine blended formats that allow for inclusiveness, travel-related emissions reduction and new interactive formats through virtual participation options, while at the same time facilitating physical encounters. What people missed most were the opportunities for informal encounters as well as the opportunity to be in an ‘experimental space’ separated from one’s usual obligations.

  • Missed opportunities for informal interaction: Despite us providing several opportunities for informal interaction e.g. during the lunch hour and after each session, people missed the informal feedback they would usually get after a presentation. “I often get the most valuable feedback after the presentation. People are less shy then and deeper discussions emerge. This was not really possible despite rooms staying open after a session”, was one comment we received. Particularly junior scholars felt they had a harder time approaching and getting to know people: “As I am pretty new to the field, for me interaction and talks in person are important for networking. Seeing each other on screen does not really lead to getting to know each other”, was one concern that was voiced.
  • Loss of the ‘experimental space’ experience: While many felt it to be an advantage to combine conference participation while keeping up with other duties, many also missed the opportunity to be physically distant from usual work routines and family obligations, as this distance opens up some free space for fresh thinking and inspiration which is much needed for academic research. “When you are physically in a venue away from home and from work, you can easily ‘be only there’. But from home, it is impossible to disconnect from everyday work and life commitments. Women with children are highly more affected – there was a researcher in one of the sessions who had her young child around… I could see how challenging it was for her!” was one comment in this direction. Another participant missed “The permission to be away from work, the face-face informal conversations and networking and continuing conversations”. This feeling combined for some with a sense of ‘Zoom fatigue’, although this was perceived to be a temporary problem related to the lockdown status.

In sum: “I still think that physical events bring something more, in terms of the human contacts and the ability to share experiences more informally, than a digital forum. Also, it helps getting into contact with people and being in an ‘atmosphere’ or ‘bubble’ for several days. This kind of digital events is very useful and should take more room. However, it shouldn’t replace as such physical conferences, although these could be reduced somewhat”.

It seems that there are some boundary conditions that need to be considered when thinking about blended formats in the future: virtual formats tend to offer more gains than losses for colleagues with lower travel budgets, higher teaching and admin loads, and more care duties when the alternative would be not to participate at all. Physical formats tend to be most important for younger scholars in the field that need to reach out to new contacts. Virtual formats are useful to provide focused feedback on work in progress; physical events seem to offer more time and space for inspiration and reflection (mind you though: at least we as organizers felt highly inspired after the event, with this new UP:IT platform just being one of several fresh collective outcomes, so we would actually like to challenge this somewhat preconceived assumption that is often repeated in discussions about virtual conference modes).

Although we cannot tell for sure, we sense that the format we arranged played a major part in enabling this overall positive outcome. Here are some of the main principles that we followed:

  • Shortening the time of paper sessions while adding asynchronous elements: We kept the usual format of three papers/session to be discussed by assigned discussants, but reduced the length of each session to 50 minutes in order to reduce the synchronous screen time for everyone, which was important given time-zone differences. This was possible because we cleared sessions from paper presentations by asking authors to prepare – on a voluntary basis – a 15-minute prerecorded video. 64 percent of the respondents found these prerecorded presentations ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’ on a five-point Likert scale. These presentations were accompanied by uploaded papers, which 76 percent found ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’. We also provided uploaded presentation slides, which 42 percent found ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’. While 95 percent of discussants or listeners read the uploaded papers, 80 percent watched the prerecorded presentations and 56 percent looked at the presentation slides. Of course, preparation of these materials took some time – 50 percent of respondents needed between 2-4 hours of preparation, 29 percent took longer. Anyone attending a session was asked to look at these materials in advance, and in line with their own time zones and preferences, so that the synchronous time would be spared only for discussion of papers.
  • Clear communication and preparation: Once deciding on the general format, we sent several emails to participants outlining and explaining our choices and providing technical advice, which we were able to put together thanks to the help of some volunteer participants. Jo Kitchen prepared a great guidance on how to record a presentation, whereas Matthias Klumpp and Tobias Witt detailed how to upload videos on Youtube. Whereas we stored papers and presentation slides on a password-protected platform administered by the OS office, videos with their large file size had to be hosted on Youtube. We – with the great help of our dear Sophia Tzagkaraki from the OS office – spent quite some time in making it as easy as possible for participants to access these different resources, copying links to each directly into the program.
  • Careful scheduling and shorter overall duration: Since it was important for us to create a collective workshop experience, which depends on people staying on board throughout the majority of sessions, we cut the conference duration down from 3,5 to 2,5 days. On each day, we provided spaces for informal interaction along with more formally organized formats. We also organized a collective ‘highlight’ on each day that would bring the whole group together: a moderated session on “Organizing Sustainably in Academia” prepared by a survey among participants on the first day (attended by 64 percent of respondents), and keynotes on the second and third day (attended by 80 percent of respondents). This seems to have worked well in keeping on board, since 74 percent of respondents said they have attended other people’s sessions in addition to their own, with an average of four paper sessions being attended by each participant.
  • Providing room for informal discussions: We organized several accompanying social activities like a virtual cocktail and meal hour, and left paper session rooms open after their formal end for informal discussions. While the cocktail hour was directed in a sense that we put people into breakout groups, the lunch hour and informal rooms were undirected, allowing people to just show up, leave and linger as they would in a physical conference. Our survey results indicate, however, that not every participant used the opportunity to stay on in the open rooms, with the main reason being that subsequent sessions started after only 15 minutes. While there was not obligation to attend a subsequent sessions, respondents indicate that they would have preferred more “unscheduled” time between each session to allow for more informal follow-ups with session participants.
  • Taking care of data protection and privacy: We are not blind to the privacy issues involved in running this type of event using the big technology platforms. It is very tempting that broadcasting and recording of sessions, including the chats, is possible, and we made use of this opportunity. However, we asked participants for their explicit agreement before recording any session, and we are only uploading the recordings for a restricted period of time (4 weeks) on a password-protected platform. We decided to share the recordings to increase inclusivity given that some author teams could not make it to the virtual event due to time-zone issues or childcare duties arising from the Covid-19 situation (see below). But, of course, Zoom is likely to keep and save these transcripts and recordings somewhere. Data sovereignty might be higher when using alternative and open-source platforms, but with no specific resources supporting us in setting up the workshop we felt uncomfortable trying a technology unfamiliar to us.
  • Getting the right technology and team: In all this, the technology – we used Zoom hosted by Penn State University – has to work properly as a hygiene factor. But the key challenge is not the technology, but rather to run the conference as a team effort. Just one example: for sessions with larger audiences (>10) it was key to have at least two people involved in steering the session, because sometimes presenters had to be chased up through email or the chat had to be moderated in parallel to the session itself. Clear role assignments before the meetings are important regarding chairs, moderators, discussants and so on.

Asked what they would do differently next time, or expect us to do differently as organizers, many said they would take more time to prepare each session they attended – so this is a key take-away as you prepare for EGOS or other virtual conferences to come. Likewise, several people said they would attend the informal sessions – while the cocktail hour at our event was attended by 23 percent of respondents, only 10 percent attended the meal hour, which many afterwards perceived as a missed opportunity (probably once they heard about the creative and fun discussions they have missed 😊). A main recommendation for us as organizers was to extend the workshop and have fewer parallel sessions, with more time in between each session for informal exchange – but, as outlined above, this might come at the expense of losing participants over time.

One final caveat to be mentioned is that running a virtual conference also comes at a cost. Since we did not ask for any participation fees, the Organization Studies administration incurred a loss and our great office manager Sophia basically worked on a voluntary basis on all of the workshop days as well as much in advance with the usual preparation activities. Conference fees are not just needed to cover meals and venue charges, but are also a key source of revenue for the professional associations behind these events, which also provide a host of other valuable services to the community. 80 percent of our survey respondents said they would be willing to pay a fee for a comparable virtual conference, and 73 percent indicated that their university would have covered this fee. 63 percent felt that a fee up to 100 € would have been acceptable.

To sum up, the workshop proved to be an important learning experience and highlighted the scope for rethinking our established practices. To be sure, with the Covid-19 pandemic putting a sudden stop to classroom-based teaching and other in-person interactions, most of our participants had already gained plenty of experience with online meetings tools such as Zoom as they shifted their teaching and other academic work online. These circumstances might have primed participants to embrace virtual conferencing as a ‘natural’ progression. It is not clear which lessons will carry over if and when international travel resumes and conferences again become a possibility. For us, and our participants, it now seems possible to imagine a more varied mix of conferencing formats – for example, semi-annual rather than annual physical meetings in person, with virtual events in the alternate years or hybrid models, whereby some sessions run virtually or some colleagues participate remotely (e.g. those facing resource-constraints or wishing to avoid travel). As our initial “Organizing Sustainably” group discussion indicated, such changes need to be accompanied by norms changing from an excessive towards a ‘mild mobility’ of academics, with each one of us choosing to participate in in-person events in closer physical proximity, while participating virtually in those that are farther away, and combining longer trips with longer stays and purposes beyond any individual conference or workshop. This, of course, also requires changes in our university administrative procedures to allow for longer stays away from teaching and other obligations every once in a while as a basis for international exchange and inspiration, while not sanctioning virtual presentations as part of performance appraisals and tenure procedures.

We are grateful to the 93 percent of respondents that wholeheartedly said “Yes, I would attend such an event again in the future”, while we also fully understand those colleagues that withdrew their participation for a mix of reasons, with being unable to do further work on their study due to Covid-19 (71 percent), being tired of video conferences (71 percent), looking forward to going to Greece (57 percent), and childcare duties (57 percent) being the most prominent reasons.

We hope that these insights will help us in reimagining academic conferences in the future, in a way that it is inspiring, inclusive, environmentally friendly and productive at the same time.

By Elke Schüßler, Markus Helfen, Andi Pekarek, Charlene Zietsma, Rick Delbridge

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