One of the biggest challenges for DEFEND this year has been how to hold our annual consortium meeting. With the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacting travel, we couldn’t hold our meeting in with out partner in North Macedonia, as we planned. We had to put on our thinking caps, get back to basics and create a new and innovative way to hold our consortium meeting without co-location, all whilst making sure we still achieved our high level of collaboration!
So, how do 40 people plus best discuss their thoughts and ideas when they are not together? And how do you connect people across multiple time zones and countries?
In one word, teleconference.
Prior to the start of 2020 the word teleconference was probably rarely used. Not many people used this type of service in their day to day life, except possibly for the odd meeting. However, teleconferencing has exploded since March 2020, developing in ways most people would not have dreamed. Thankfully when researching and planning for our 2020 virtual annual meeting, the meteoric rise of the teleconference was the answer to our biggest problems.
After careful research and deliberation, we decided that using Lifesize teleconference software best met our needs. The software allowed up to 300 people to attend a single meeting which was far more than we needed. It had great moderation functions which meant no feedback or background noise and full control for the moderator. It also had a function for people to indicate when they had a question, avoiding the awkward situation of people talking over each other. We were very impressed with the security of Lifesize and, simply put, this was the dream software for our meeting!
From experience, we knew that discussion and collaboration between participants was a challenge with teleconferencing. We wanted to maximise our discussions and the collaboration between our participants, so we had to change our focus. Presentations were recorded and sent out to the attendees to watch in the week ahead of the meeting date. This did have a homework feel about it but left the meeting days for the participants to share their thoughts, ideas, and knowledge.
After months of careful planning the meeting days arrived, and we can confidently say it was a resounding success!
The discussion produced interesting and thoughtful viewpoints, and valuable feedback to everyone who attended. The spirit of support and collaboration was in full flow and it was almost like being all together.
Some may feel that teleconference is no substitute for a physical meeting, and whilst we agree that there is nothing quite like getting into a room with your colleagues to thrash out new ideas and come up with solutions, given the current circumstances we felt that teleconference was the next best thing.
Our top tips
If you are planning a teleconference for a large number of attendees, our top tips are:
· Have a test run of the software for participants prior to the meeting to solve any glitches the participants might have.
· Have a IT team available to assist if necessary (we had our Pirbright IT team on standby, to give us peace of mind).
· Don’t under-estimate how much time the organisation will take. It is similar to a face-to-face conference!
· Incorporate break-out sessions with a smaller number of participates – these were well received by our attendees
A huge thank you to Gemma Woolford, our Project Administrator, who came up with the plan for our virtual teleconference and made it happen! Thanks to our Pirbright IT support team, and Petra Fay and Najith Wijesiriwardana for their adept monitoring, moderation and minute taking skills!
And a big thank you to the Consortium for their enthusiasm and willingness to try something new and come with us on this journey into the new world of teleconferencing!