Since returning to work in January, I have spent nine days travelling within the UK, attending conferences, events, trainings and making site visits for a consulting client. These have been the first opportunity to leave home on business since the middle of March 2020. I’ve loved it. But will it continue?

Let’s be clear. Going anywhere for the last two years hasn’t been sensible. The risks to health from Covid-19 have been real and serious.

Selfishly, the impact of the worst effects of long Covid on me would have been disastrous. If I’m too ill to work, I don’t earn my income. The bills go unpaid. No sick pay, no government help. Less selfishly, I would never have lived with myself if I’d been a one-man super-spreader.

But now, with all the progress we’ve made, the return to in-person work is possible. Of course, we are all — individually and organisationally — going to have to decide what stays online and what should be done in real life (IRL), and why. Some want as much human connection back as possible (I won’t lie, I’m in that camp) and some want us to spend the rest of our lives at home on Teams, Zoom, and the like. As in all things, reality will be a balance between the two, as Matt Hyde of The Scouts so brilliantly wrote recently — you can read his thinking here.

What concerns me now is whether that choice about returning to IRL is being taken away from us by short-sighted organisational thinking. I’ve heard quite a few leaders of volunteer engagement (and others) saying that even if they wanted to attend an in-person event or learning and development opportunity, they can’t because their employer has banned attendance at anything that costs money for the foreseeable future.

There are three serious implications that immediately come to mind from this position:

  1. At a time when the jobs market is pretty buoyant, investing in the learning and development of our people will be crucial to attracting and retaining the best talent to our work. Banning people from attending conferences workshops, events, and the like will simply result in your people going elsewhere, leaving your organisation less capable of attracting and retaining the talent you need. Ultimately, this will probably cost you more money eventually.
  2. If your people can’t go and learn from others, network and make connections, then how will they gain the insights they need to change, adapt and grow their work to the benefit of your mission? Sure, reading a report or watching a webinar on your own will help build your knowledge, but not as much as being able to debate and interrogate that source material with others, something much more effectively done IRL as so many elements of communication get lost online (e.g., body language).
  3. If our organisations fail to invest in learning and development, then the infrastructure to support that activity may disappear. Local venues who host events will close. Local and national instructor bodies will wither away. For years, our voluntary sector infrastructure has been told they need to earn more of their income. They’ve adapted accordingly. Now we’re going to pull up the drawbridge and hang them out to dry, whilst lining the pockets of the likes of Zoom and Microsoft?

In saying all this, I am aware of the budgetary squeeze the pandemic and current world situation has brought to many organisations, my own included. I am aware of the need to avoid returning to the environmentally harmful behaviour of the past. I am aware of the need to behave responsibly and safely in a pandemic that hasn’t yet ended.

Likewise, I am aware that we are social creatures. Being with others in our DNA. We are not designed to only engage with others through a window on our computer desktops. We learn more from spending time with others, that’s why coffee and lunch break conversations and interactive workshops always rate highly on event evaluation forms (except for the online events!).

As I said earlier, we have to find a balance between online and IRL as the pandemic (hopefully) fades. Being left without that choice because of short-sighted financial worries could cause long-term negative effects from Covid-19 beyond those we have already experienced. We mustn’t let that happen.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

What perspectives do you have on these issues?

Please share your thoughts with a comment below.

Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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5 thoughts on “Online vs. In-person: do we have a choice?

  1. It’s a fascinating question Rob – and one I have been pondering also. For what it is worth, I think there’s going to be a slow return to face to face get togethers but we will eventually get somewhere back to where we were. I think agencies need the time to recover (financially) and punters need to the time to regain confidence from the perspective of their health and the risk of covid – but I think it will happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We have consulted with staff on this and returning to work in the office.

    It’s been interesting as the majority wanted to return to work, however, when we arranged a short meeting in the office, they weren’t so keen and put up barriers. The same happened when we consulted with the people who were asking for a return to face to face visits and events e.g. 10 signed up for an event but on the day 6 cancelled.

    When asked why it became clear that a lot of people are still anxious and fear the return to the new normal and it’s going to take time to understand that everyone is different, we need to respect this and be as flexible as we can as we plan our way back to whatever the “normal” is going to be, especially as where we are COVID cases are increasing daily and the restrictions haven’t been lifted as expected and we are back to no visiting in hospitals.

    We were lucky enough to receive a small amount of funding for visits and activities and have had to be very creative about using this and meeting funders criteria, had to do more events with small numbers which have been quite staff time onerous a challenge when we all work part time. However, we are getting there and at the moment the focus is on building everyone confidence about the return to face to face activities.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Rob, thought provoking as ever, and a (reasonably) balanced position 🙂
    I am in the opposite camp to you. I have to check myself constantly to ensure that my thinking is balanced and I recognise that my team and those that I work with may not hold my views about working from home and meeting on Teams.
    I think that Matt is right, we have to make sure that we use in office or face to face with purpose and that we make the most of online to save time and to some extent the environmental impacts of travelling. This is something we will have to learn and we will undoubtedly get some events and activities more right than others.
    I am not sure that I agree about the learning, Myself and my team have been able to do more learning in the last 2 years than before the pandemic. We have seen courses move online and become free, attending conferences has become cheaper as the ticket price has dropped but more importantly we have not had to pay travel and accommodation. We have found our ability to network and learn from colleagues across the country becoming easier and more regular as we have moved online. I have caught up with far more of those that do similar roles to me across the country because video has become the norm and I have benefitted immensely from this.
    As a small charity we have always valued staff learning but could never justify the cost of attending national conferences unless we could blag a free ticket (which we got down to a fine art), as they moved online suddenly they were in reach of our budget. We have been able to attend courses in other parts of the country because they were online that we would not have considered if we had to travel to, this has included short webinars as well as longer half and full day learning.
    If everything returns to ‘how it was’ we will be less informed, less connected and less collaborative. There is still a need for face to face, we will have to find a way to do hybrid so it works for all and we do still need to invest in learning for all the reasons you stress.
    To the big nationals out there, if your conferences return to in person only events we won’t be there and neither will most small charities, the usual suspects will be – but is that what you really want?

    Liked by 1 person

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