Christina Brunk, Extreme Networks
March 1, 2021
Remember the days of working in offices, meeting face-to-face, and in-person conferences with travel, hotels, and free meals? While the global pandemic has put a stop to all types of personal interactions, this only means we are forced to get creative and do things virtually that we would normally do face-to-face. This year, I decided to use this to my advantage and plan a Virtual Global Summit.
As the leader of the Information Development team at Extreme Networks, I have held global meetings in the past; however, budgetary constraints have kept me from planning one recently. This year, I didn’t have to obtain approvals for travel expenses, so I took my cue from Nike and Just Did It.
Doing the Pre-Work
Before the Global Summit, I sent out a survey to the attendee list for a few reasons. First, I wanted to confirm that my team wanted to attend a Global Summit and thought it would be a good use of their time. If this condition was not met by a majority of the team, then it would be a non-starter. I was pleased when 88% of the team responded positively. I also asked questions around duration, training, content, agenda, scheduling, virtual team building activities, and other ideas for positive virtual experiences. I was glad to receive feedback from over 50% of the team.
The responses told me that a 1-day meeting was too short, but a 3-day meeting was too long, so I opted to schedule 3 half-day sessions as opposed to 2 full-day sessions. I thought it would be easier on attendees to attend partial-day sessions that allow some time during the day to handle other daily responsibilities. Starting at 10:00 a.m. Eastern required our west coast teammates to wake up early and our Indian and Israeli counterparts to participate in the evening, but it was a compromise that seemed to work well for all involved.
The responses to the teambuilding questions were mixed. Many respondents replied that they had been forced to participate in embarrassing or not-well-thought-out activities in the past so they were skeptical at best. I challenged myself to find activities we could do as a group that would help us get to know each other better and would be fun at the same time. I interspersed fun activities at the beginning of each session and after each break as a “warm-up” activity.
Setting the Agenda
The first session was dedicated to getting to know each other and working as a group to write a “user manual” for working together (also known as a Remote Team Working Agreement). This document sets expectations among the team around information-sharing, communication preferences, and collaboration methods. I read an article about crowd-sourcing a document like this and thought it would be the perfect activity to do as a group. This activity was well-received, although the post-Summit feedback yielded information from 2 attendees that we had been working remotely for so long that this activity seemed like a moot point; however, the majority of attendees responded positively to it.
The second session was centered around updating our very outdated Strategic Plan that we wrote as a group during our previous Global Summit. We brainstormed ideas and are currently in the process of identifying near-term and longer-term goals around the ideas we generated. I broke the team into 3 groups and asked them to brainstorm ideas and assigned each group either Process, Content, or Infrastructure to give them some direction while still allowing small-group time to think. We did not finish this exercise during the Summit, so we are in the process of finalizing the updates in separate 1-hour meetings over a few weeks.
The third session was Tools and Technology. I scheduled 4 presentations around internal initiatives and made sure to allow discussion time after each presentation. And finally, the last segment of the last day was “Open Mic” which allowed attendees the option to discuss other items that were not included in the base agenda, for example, things they have heard about other companies doing, ideas that might be interesting for the team to explore, etc. Although this was a good idea, I would recommend including it earlier in the day to ensure active participation.
What About the Perks?
One of the fun things about attending a conference or an event are the perks. Sometimes these perks are company swag and sometimes these perks are food or time away from the office. Even though our meeting was virtual, I wanted to offer some of the perks of an in-person gathering.
I contacted someone from our Sales organization and requested some company logo swag. I mailed each attendee a pen, a brick phone charger, and a mobile phone stand. I also purchased some candy and a few small snacks, wrapped it all up, and mailed a care package to each attendee to be delivered during the week of the meeting.
After sending out the Summit invites, I realized that the second session was on Inauguration Day. I tried to rectify the situation by allowing a 1 ½-hour break so that attendees could watch the Presidential Swearing-In and other festivities. I also sent each attendee a $25 gift card to order lunch to be delivered on that day. Everyone seemed pleased with the compromise and I was glad to be able to offer them a treat.
Fun Things, Too.
I tried to make the sessions as fun as possible. I sent out a note prior to the event with an agenda and encouraged everyone to leave their camera and speaker on. Some attendees expressed trepidation around leaving their cameras on for 3 sessions so I replied to the attendees that were worried and offered some Zoom tricks that I hoped would help. At the beginning of the first session, I told everyone that they could turn their cameras off after the intros and initial activity as I reasoned it would be better to have participation while having everyone in their comfort zone rather than force reluctant participation.
Near the beginning of the initial session, I broke the group into groups of 2 using Zoom breakout rooms. This technology worked flawlessly, by the way, and the attendees seemed to really enjoy one-on-one time with each other. I tasked them with taking 5 minutes to get to know their partner and to find 3 unique things they had in common. I let Zoom randomly pair the groups up and the response was very positive. It forced instant engagement, but it was not an embarrassing or uncomfortable activity. After the 5 minutes were up, each duo told the group what they had in common; there was quite a bit of conversation and laughing. It kicked off the session superbly.
After the Summit
Immediately following the Summit, I sent out a survey link to gather feedback while the Summit was still fresh on everyone’s mind. I also recorded all sessions and posted presentation materials and recordings. Note that the recordings with video are quite large. I stopped recording during the 30-minute lunch breaks so there was a morning and an afternoon recording for each day making the file sizes a bit more manageable.
In the post-Summit survey I asked questions about each session, the value of the Summit overall, thoughts on the duration and content, and the frequency of subsequent Summits. One item I forgot to ask was about the use of technology which would have been a useful item to include.
There are many available online resources to use for ideas! I was overwhelmed with the amount of information I was able to find; however, I especially liked the following 2 online resources for providing me with great ideas for the type of meeting I wanted to hold:
A few other items to consider:
Talk to people. Most companies are still remote and lots of them had held virtual meetings. Inevitably, we all know folks who have participated and have feedback, both good and bad, and ideas to share. Use them as resources for feedback, too.
Poll your group. As part of the Pre-Summit survey, I asked my team what some good ideas were. I opted away from activities that would have required pre-work because I did not want the Summit to require much effort on the part of the attendees either before or after the event.
Pull from your experience. I attended CIDM’s Best Practices virtual conference during the pandemic and had a very positive experience. I drew on those events and made notes about how they were executed, and I referred back to my notes to try to recreate those experiences.
Have fun. People are worn out with nonstop meetings during these days where there is little if any, separation between home and work. Don’t be afraid to take some time to just get to know each other and have a few laughs.
I was initially hesitant to schedule a multi-day event for my group requiring even more hours in front of a computer screen, but I am so glad I went ahead with this event. While it was still “screen time” it was also successful in bonding us as a team and it helped us re-focus our efforts collectively. There are new and creative ways to use technology to your advantage and make meetings interactive and enjoyable. Finally, make sure to schedule time in your agenda to chat and enjoy each other’s company – you’ll be glad you did!