As with so many others, I have found myself, since March, doing everything through my laptop and phone. In some respects this has been daunting - in others, really liberating.

I’ve attended two online conferences in the last week; four in the last month or so. I do video calls for meetings that would have ordinarily been face to face (or, weirdly, would have been just phone calls), and my daughter knows how to message and video call her friends through the school instance of Teams.

I’ve been considering what I’ve found helpful, and difficult, about these times, as we start to open up again. What has been better than before, in terms of attending conferences online?

Pros

  • Flexibility - I have two small children and a husband with a real job. I am also a migraine sufferer, and they seem to be triggered by travelling. Being able to have a conference beamed to my laptop is really helpful in many respects. Recordings are very helpful in those instances where synchronicity isn’t realistic at my end, for whatever reason. I can listen to things live, or at a time when I can concentrate - the two don’t often overlap.

  • Inclusivity - The reduced costs of online conferences means that I can plan to attend more of them and still afford to do my research! It also means I can, as above, attend at my own pace - and in my own space, not the other side of the world, which minimises disruption to my dependents. I can also watch videos that have been pre-recorded carefully in advance - often with captioning, which is obviously of value. I can dip in and out, and have the opportunity to engage with more sessions than I would have if I had to be physically present.

  • Proving it is possible - I have worked from home for a day or two a week for many years. It’s just…helpful. If you find it easy, and not too distracting, it saves money, reminds you that you are more than an employee - you are an employee with laundry and a house that needs cleaning! - and saves significant time from the commute. I know both employees and employers who deny that it is possible to do anything useful from home. This is just wrong for many people, and, hopefully this period will provide a reset, for those who want or need it.

  • Everything sticks to time - I am yet to attend a conference session that overruns, or a session where people use the Q&A for “less of a question, more of a comment” style ramblings. These are unequivocally excellent things.

Cons

  • Zoning out - Working from home has always been good for multitasking. Which means that it can be terrible for…concentrating on one thing well. Which is less than ideal for long video sessions that don’t necessarily require a lot of input.

  • Who are you, again? - I am an introvert. If I never had to introduce myself to anyone ever again, I would be ok with that. But I have found online conferences are hard, if not impossible, to use for anything other than dissemination of knowledge. Even smaller breakout sessions can feel very overwhelming from a participation point of view, if you don’t know anyone else, or are worried about appearing on camera or a flaky internet connection. Networking may have to evolve…online reading groups, anyone?

  • Exclusivity - What, Sarah? You just said it was inclusive! Yes…it is…until it isn’t. I have had some discussions about my charity’s annual conference, and my weird fixation throughout was data costs. I have a lovely office…with a spotty Internet connection. I have upped my phone data allowance twice since March to deal with needing to stream video meetings. Not everyone has the budget to do that. Or a device. Or even a safe space to attend such meetings.

  • When it goes wrong… - It is pretty stressful. If you can’t find a meeting room in an office, you can probably find someone who can point you in the right direction. If your meeting link doesn’t work…what do you do? In my case, try the same link or login process periodically, and hope you didn’t miss anything vital. When it goes really wrong (Zoom bombing, I’m looking at you), it is overwhelming and disturbing as a guest - and terrifying as a host.