This past Tuesday, I woke up and went for a run in the calm, brisk spring air in a Chicago suburb. I don’t live in Illinois but was ‘on the road’ for the first time in over a year to facilitate an executive business acumen offsite workshop in person.
As so many people these days, I had a lot of concern about if this is a smart idea given Covid. Our organization has spent the last year perfecting our delivery of virtual training and executive facilitation sessions using digital business simulations. We have been very fortunate as our virtual business is booming. So now that I, along with 80 million Americans, are fully vaccinated, the question is when and IF we return to the various Conference properties all over the world to meet in person.
The Setup: Keeping it Safe:
Right out of the gate, our client is in a business deemed essential, so all participants were vaccinated. Despite that fact, precautions are still very important until we get to a much higher proportion of the population vaccinated.
I appreciated the thorough approach they took to making sure that our team was safe from the moment we left the house until we returned.
A few days before the program, I received a simple Covid self-test. I self-administered it and sent it off to a lab for analysis. When I got the results, I was good to go.
In an abundance of caution, I drove to the airport to reduce unneeded interaction with a ride share service. At the airport, all the appropriate spacing and masking precautions were implemented. Restaurants were open but seating was spaced out. Everyone was complying with wearing masks properly. I felt quite safe. The airplane was reasonably full but not overwhelming and again, people were wearing masks. The airline staff also did a great job in reminding passengers of the precautions as well as providing sanitizing wipes at every seat.
Arriving at Chicago O’Hare Airport, I decided to rent a car, again to reduce unneeded time in heavily used vehicles such as a ride share. The car rental company made the whole process ‘touchless’ so the next thing I know I am at the hotel, with a digital check in system eliminating interaction unless I chose to have it. The staff was there, ready to assist if asked but not creating unneeded interaction. They know that their businesses will be at risk if they don’t get this right.
The business acumen training workshop itself included approximately 70 business leaders and lasted three days. The conference coordinator was exceptional at making sure that all safety guidelines were being followed. The space we used for the main session was probably four times larger than would have been historically required. This provided the space needed for proper social distancing. There were assigned seats that were well spaced out. As the facilitator, I used a microphone and was up on a platform well distanced from the participants. When presenting, I was able to remove my mask to improve communication and facilitation. Meals were distributed safely, and the participants sat at tables in the same, well-spaced setup.
At the completion of the program, I repeated the process in reverse and got home to a second Covid test with an all clear.
So was it worth it?
There are several factors that I would consider here: Safety, convenience, time, cost, and impact.
Clearly from a safety perspective, the travel and face to face interaction increases risk of exposure to Covid. The vaccines, particularly the mRNA ones, are showing to have very high efficacy with very few breakthrough cases to date. I am not a scientist and I realize that the vaccine / virus issue has become a source of political debate, so I will limit my exploration of this topic.
Regarding time spent. My facilitated part of the program ran for approximately 9 hours. When on a virtual delivery, beside my preparation time, my time investment would have been limited to about 10 hours for this type of executive facilitation. I probably added 12 hours to that time investment for transit. Given that everything else we are doing is virtual, I was able to efficiently manage my time over the three days as the session was in the hotel I was staying in so no time was lost on a day to day commute. Overall I would say that live sessions do significantly impact time requirements and if each executive also invested an additional 12 hours, that is about 840 ‘lost hours’ of productivity for a group the size I was working with. This can add a significant cost if these are six figure resources.
Of course, the cost for the client was significantly higher due to transport, meals, accommodation, and meeting space. I am hearing that consultants are starting to charge a premium to cover the ‘travel downtime’ they experience getting to a session.
So what about impact? Was it worth pulling everyone together in person for this versus the virtual experiences we are doing these days?
During our virtual implementations, we are leveraging our digital business simulation centric approach to drive small team breakout sessions that are frankly, amazing. A well-designed simulation can drive deep dialog and engagement between small groups in breakout sessions as well as deep understanding around key challenges and priorities. As a facilitator, I can seamlessly communicate to the whole group quickly as well as ‘drop in’ to listen to discussions. I have access to rich data with our back-end analytics that allow me to provide enormous value to our clients during and after a session.
The session I facilitated this past week was designed to build focus and alignment on how to execute new corporate priorities flawlessly as the company moves from privately held to a public company.
There was a lot of prep work that went into the event and we had a simulation that took the leaders through the shift while helping them focus on the critical success factors. Being in person for this purpose made a lot of sense. The leaders needed to be aligned to assure business success. There was a lot of discussion on some key priorities that having in person really helped.
I also realized, through our face-to-face interactions, that the team was more advanced on some topics than what was planned for so being live enabled me to make adjustments to meet the team where they were and maximize impact. Finally, as always, the interaction during the hallway discussions as well as the relationships that were built went further than what is typically planned for in two or three, half day virtual meetings over a week. For this purpose, I would say that the live setting had a lot more impact.
As I mentioned earlier, we are having tremendous success delivering great experiences in a virtual session. The value to cost and time equation really tips toward doing things virtually and I believe that approach is here to stay. However, for deep, strategic sessions where longer discussion and analysis are required and building human relationships are critical for success, I believe we are at the point where live meetings can be safely considered again.
What are your plans for moving to a new normal? Are live sessions a thing of the past or what do you see as the right balance point? I look forward to hearing your view.