It’s totally realistic to assume that one effect of COVID-19 is that distributed work will become the new normal for many of us, not just now during a pandemic status. What seems to be much harder to imagine, design, produce and deliver is live events.
While the entire workforce working from home is not ideal, if you are fortunate enough to be a digital company with the right equipment distributed to all your employees, it can pan out. Distributed working can even be more efficient if the workers can avoid getting socially deprived by setting up a workspace and virtual connections with other team members in a way that works for them. But what does it mean for other parts of our working world where in-person connection is normally assumed to be necessary?
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
During the last two weeks we’ve seen numerous events, conferences and galas canceled or postponed – for obvious reasons, and undoubtedly the right choice. But, if working from home can pan out, why wouldn’t running virtual workshops, trainings, events, offsites, onsites, conferences, summits and/or galas work, if we just re-define the experience? How do we change the way we frame things, interact and also rethink the formats for speakers? And in a global environment, how do we synchronize communication to ensure all participants can take part and not feel left out?
Unusual situations can often help us push our boundaries and find creative solutions to challenges. And Coronavirus or not, innovation is key to business and people strategy, no matter if it’s forced upon us or if it’s part of our day-to-day.
Let me ask you this: is a remote event any different to linear TV? And we’re all very familiar with that format. If you have recording & distribution of content in your plan, it gives you flexibility. It’s not a far reach to go from that to live-streaming, and adding some A/B-test interaction in your live feeds – and it means your first thought should not be to cancel or postpone. Even for those accustomed to it, this opportunity seems to be far-fetched. Out of sight, out of mind can pose a real problem.
So when we were facing the question of whether we should cancel (hard to postpone International Women’s Day!) the Nine Muses Festival or not, we instead jumped at the challenge to re-group and reproduce the event, flipping it from in-person conference to a live-streamed event.
Pump Up the Volume
So how did we manage to turn around a live event in less than 48 hours with 500 people signed up, to become a live-streamed event instead?
Like all other companies and HR teams we were monitoring the information provided by trusted sources like Work Health Organisation and local authorities, and making sure we followed the advice. Not panicking, but being careful. And going into the week of International Women’s Day and our annual Nine Muses Festival there were no instructions to cancel events of this size so our main focus was more on good communication and encouragement of good hygiene.
Even with very professional events and communications teams, it’s important to be mindful that things are fluid. You may have made a decision on an approach to something, but there could be a tiny thing that means you have to change it – last minute. Always be open-minded to this. Nothing is final until it’s actually done! And then of course, it might not even turn out as planned.
The even more tricky thing with the Nine Muses Festival is that we run this with our co-founders @Kinnevik @MTG @Discovery and sponsors like @Epidmic Sound and partners such as Sthlm Music, The Moth, Generator Hostel, Stockholm University of the Arts, so as the COVID-19 updates came more and more frequently, we had to agree together with them, and with our speakers about what the approach should be.
Whenever making a decision like this it’s always good to sense check and get input from others, and put the safety of our audience, and employees at the centre of the decision. But now, we had to also deal with different organisations, different cultures and different ways of handling unprecedented things like what to do when this coronavirus is spreading and you have a hard deadline.
We were able to have a very open conversation about the fact that even though sponsors funding the project, there were several other partners invested in other ways – and whatever decisions we made they would also be part of that through their brand association. Therefore, it was important that we listened to their thoughts too.
Would we cancel? Would we postpone it to next year? Would we go ahead and do the event as planned (mind you, the decision had to be taken before Sweden’s status changed to high risk)?
We could not be happier to have all of these wonderful organisations be part of our movement. They are not only passionate about gender equality in our industry, but also very much into innovating new ways of doing this work while staying safe and healthy.
For us, the joy but also the heavy lifting of planning this event had been to line-up the speakers – so many talented and inspiring speakers enthusiastic about being part of our movement and our event. All eager to celebrate women in media and the creative arts, and to shine a light on gender equality in this sector. So, would they still be able to attend or take part? And if so, could their participation still bring that value to our audience, even if the speaker and the audience were not there in-person?
So from being a big event in one location we pumped up the volume and dared to go virtual. Creating a movement or any event is first and foremost about coming together, the how is secondary. You have to stay true to your purpose, be flexible but with constant reference to your objective. Having a culture (and project management team who embrace it) where challenging the norm, and frequently throwing ‘what if’ questions into the planning process, is obviously a huge part of why this was doable.
Shift Your Energies and Focus
For this event, the change meant shifting away from the planned decoration details and furniture moving work, to suddenly thinking much more about the technical aspects and video editing. This means switching your mindset in an instant. Visualising and accepting your new reality, and not looking back. And find the silver lining – be committed to what you have decided to do and don’t waste valuable time mourning what it could have been.
Once your decision is made, you have to start over-indexing on communication. Try to pre-empt the follow-up questions that your audience may have before you make an announcement, and have those answers ready. This will help you decide what your new offering is – which needs to be done before communications go out to make sure it’s clear and concise.
The Nine Muses Festival had evolved from a live event and there were several options open to us in terms of re-defining our offering. Where we were sold out before, was it now possible to open the event to more people? How could we differentiate between the live stream and the edited recordings that were planned for a few weeks later? Where could we now add value and what would be possible have to leave out?
Be Relentlessly Resourceful
By using a well known format whether it be an internal offsite or an external co-produced event – the biggest challenge is to leave a loved design behind. We all know what it is to work in the office, but we have to re-learn what it is to work from home no matter if it is short term or long term. The same goes for workshops, trainings and larger gatherings like summits etc. The easiest and oldest trick in the book is to give up i.e. cancel or postpone. But there’s very little innovation, growth mindset or resourceful thinking and teaming up in that.
Yes, maybe we were extremely lucky to have very adaptable and multi-talented people like Kate Tellers from The Moth on our line-up already (Kate’s a professional event host as well as a workshop designer and facilitator). It meant we could very quickly explore whether she could host the Women’s Showcase instead of delivering a digital workshop. The more we discussed it, the more we felt it tied in with the focus of the women’s showcase and having Kate host it would set the scene and context perfectly.
Commit To Your New Reality
The world is going more digital, and we have never even been analoge. Still being able to engage your audience across several channels and in different ways is a way of deepening the experience. We dared to take a first stab at this and also redefine what both internal events and external events might look like for us, going forward.
Coming from a culture of post mortems and retros there are always several things we can do better with our technology to further enhance the experience for, and interaction from, the audience. But, the feedback has been positive and if we decide not to be too hard on ourselves – this was turned around in less than 48 hours and during special times.
We decided to choose joy in challenging times, rolled up our sleeves, and reminded ourselves that even if the end result isn’t as we visualised it to be, it can still be great or a great learning moment.
Take very good care of one another!