In-person events have long been a popular mainstay of the business culture for many organizations. Folks gather for training, peruse the tables at health fairs or chat with vendors at annual enrollment benefits fairs, and even get their party hats on for the annual holiday celebration. There’s simply nothing quite like getting all your people together under one roof.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put the brakes on live events for most organizations. In the face of lockdowns and travel bans, we worked with many of our clients to help them pivot to a virtual event model. Just as they learned how to operate with a fully remote workforce, organizations flexed to create online experiences for their people. And in the blink of an eye, many of their previously scheduled events moved from conference rooms and event halls to cyberspace.
As it turns out, the virtual approach offers many of the same benefits as in-person events—and additional ones that live events can’t offer. Just as Zoom has worked its way into our vernacular for online meetings, online events have become the new routine for many organizations.
Online experiences run the gamut from plain to super slick, with something to meet every HR communications opportunity. Some businesses budget for one of the increasingly sophisticated software solutions that mimic the architecture of a live meeting—participants arrive in a lobby, choose an avatar, walk from room to room, and network in virtual lounges. That approach is particularly appropriate for converting a live annual enrollment benefits or health fair to a virtual one or for staging a large recruiting event.
Others opt for more modest webinar approaches where employees view a live panel and ask questions via chat, much like the online calls many of us regularly attend these days. This works well for informational sessions, training, or fireside chats with leadership. And at the other end of the spectrum, but still highly effective, some virtual hosts employ straightforward pages in a microsite. The pages can represent conference rooms or benefits fair booths and may contain welcome or informational videos from leaders or vendors. There’s no learning curve, as visitors simply click to view.
While online webinars and training have been a staple of the HR communications landscape for years, the variety, frequency, and scope of these events accelerated during the pandemic lockdown. With office locations shuttered and folks afraid—or even forbidden by company policy—to travel, it quickly became a choice to invite employees to attend virtually or not at all. Today, it isn’t just training sessions being held online: Any and all company events are rife for reimagining as a virtual experience. Like collecting handouts from benefit vendors or having a one-on-one conversation with a carrier rep without leaving home. Suddenly employees worldwide were doing just that.
As vaccinations increase and infection rates decrease, restrictions are easing. This relative return to normalcy signals the potential for businesses to move their meetings, conferences, and training back to in-person events. And that begs the question: Are virtual events here to stay? We believe the answer is a resounding Yes!
WFH is A-OK. The work from home (WFH) culture has taken hold, and folks aren’t letting go of the easier commute and better work-life balance. Nearly two-thirds of employees now working from home said they’d quit if required to return to the office, so more companies are embracing WFH. Although the numbers around business travel are expected to improve as the health crisis subsides, a recent poll by the Global Business Travel Association shows 55% of companies don’t expect employees to attend in-person events right away. And while more may attend live events by the end of the year, for right now the majority will participate from their homes or offices.
Virtual events save money. Holding a virtual event eliminates the costs of flying people in, setting them up in hotel rooms, and providing meals or expense vouchers. That’s a welcome bonus in these cash-strapped times. For organizations, there are no production and venue costs, although there can be costs associated with the online meeting platform. According to research by software developer Wild Apricot, 84% of businesses that conducted a virtual event in 2020 said they spent less than they did when running in-person events.
Technological advances are creating seamless experiences. In addition to the sophisticated interface solutions mentioned earlier, software advances like networking opportunities and breakout sessions create an overall experience that rival in-person events. What’s more, employee engagement techniques like live polling and on-the-fly surveys are easier when everyone’s already sitting at their computers.
Virtual events are calendar friendly. Not only do virtual events save everyone the expense and hassle of traveling, they’re also much easier on personal and business schedules. No travel means more time saved, better productivity, and fewer missed meetings. In an age of remote learning and a more flexible work-life balance, this also means fewer conflicts around domestic issues, like child or elder care. And on behalf of those who can’t clear their calendars, it’s standard practice to record virtual sessions. If you can’t attend in real time, you can catch the replay at your convenience. That’s something that can’t be said for in-person events.
Virtual space is everywhere at once. Are your people spread out over different facilities, cities, or even countries? Among our clients are a fair number of employers with widely dispersed members. These include organizations like state and local governments, university systems, large multinationals, and union/multiemployer groups. Even before the pandemic, these organizations were challenged to reach everyone at once. So why take your show on the road? Virtual events are the natural solution to providing a consistent experience no matter the work location. They have the added benefit of controlling the message to be sure every employee sees and hears the same thing.
Although things are opening up, we’re not out of the global pandemic woods just yet, so gathering your people virtually will be a reality for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, it seems clear there’s a bright future for bringing employees together without sharing physical space.
When all is said and done, live versus virtual is not an either-or proposition. Virtual events are not—and likely never will be—a complete replacement for in-person experiences. There’s no substitute for the human connection of meeting face to face. Having a meet-and-greet or needing employees to touch and feel a product offering? Then a live event is a super engaging way to go. But for almost anything else, if you can do it in real life, you can share it online. So, rather than thinking of cyber-based events as a placeholder for in-person gatherings, think of the virtual event space as yet another resource in your employee communications toolbox.
We're proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk.
Ettore Toppi, Senior Communications Consultant, creates engaging communications campaigns that ensure employees are informed and connected with their benefits.