With the number of COVID-19 cases going up in many US states, as of this writing, it’s safe to say virtual meetings and events are here to stay, at least for the rest of the year. The National Safety Council’s Congress & Expo recently announced it’s moving to spring 2021, along with a number of other annual conferences and events.

I graduated college as online classes were still in their infancy; I didn’t take a single class online — until now. In the past month, I’ve attended ASSP’s Safety 2020 virtually (including one-on-one Zoom meetings), taken an online workshop on visual learning through COVE, the Center of Visual Expertise, and signed up for a free online course through Coursera.com on “The Science of Well-Being” by Yale University. I’ve also moderated webinars for ISHN with record registration and attendance numbers. This is the new normal for many of us.

A good experience

I admit I was skeptical about virtual conferences. I wasn’t sure how many people would actually “attend” and participate in lectures and educational sessions from their home offices (or living room couch). I’m now a convert.

I attended several speaker sessions at ASSP’s Safety 2020. Every session I joined had more than 800 live viewers, some had much more than that, and that number doesn’t even include people who saved it to watch later. I really enjoyed the sessions I attended. Having them pre-recorded, while jarring at first, was definitely the way to go as it freed up speakers to join in the live chat and answer questions. There was even more interaction than at the in-person event since questions were answered live while the recording was playing.

The expo portion of the conference had an option to meet live with exhibitors: Requesting a meeting led you to a private Zoom room. While this worked well, this is where I missed the in-person event. It’s really difficult to replicate the experience of attending an in-person conference. The networking and ability to connect on a personal level is just not there at a virtual event.

Visual learning

On the other end of online events, there were only about 10 participants in the virtual COVE workshop. We were to print out a workbook ahead of time, and this helped keep the workshop to the two-hour time. This workshop is typically held at the Toledo Museum of Art and lasts over two days. Obviously, this cannot be replicated in a two-hour video session. However, I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I got out of the class.

 COVE specializes in thinking of safety with a different perspective, and uses art as a way to rethink how we perceive things. Everyone has a different idea of reality and everyone’s biases play a role in how they approach a problem. Again, this doesn’t replicate the in-person experience, however, the live video class made it possible to connect with the other attendees, share opinions, and see the images that were part of the class. I was engaged during the entire two hours. (If you’re interested in attending a COVE class, sign up here.)1

How long will this last?

The Harvard Business Review reported2 that face-to-face meetings are 34 times more successful than emails. The research conducted by Vanessa Bohns, a professor at Cornell University, shows that seeing the people you’re speaking with builds relationships and trust more so than phone calls or emails. However, even once this pandemic has passed, I don’t see people being comfortable meeting in person, especially in large groups and when travel is required, until 2021.

This means planners need to focus on how to provide value to attendees who are increasingly being asked to attend virtual meetings and events as part of their jobs. In order to foster a collaborative work environment, encourage creativity and drive business, these events and meetings need to be engaging and worthwhile. It will be interesting to see what develops after these initial forays into virtual experiences — and what remains a permanent fixture of work life.  


1. https://www.covectr.com/en-us/virtual-workshops

2. https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email