But as the future of work becomes inextricably tied to tech, virtual reality, remote-connectivity and distributed teams, the question becomes: are in-person conferences still relevant?
In short, yes. Although the workforce is shifting to become more digitally connected and physically dispersed, the value of the in-person encounters are so critical that it may start to influence the way we as leaders shape work in smaller settings as well.
In a recent post for Medium, Tim Leberecht, author of The Business Romantic, explored what in-person conferences can teach us about optimizing all workspaces. As millennials move closer to a majority of the workforce, traditional offices “must inspire and forge community, [and be] carefully designed to offer social exchange, interactive drama and debate, intellectual and emotional stimulation, wow and aha moments and yes—even entertainment.”
In other words, they should be designed like conferences, “with effective managers emulating the traits of conference curators.”
Convene co-founder Chris Kelly finds numerous parallels between workplace leaders and conference curators or facilitators. “Like all good team leaders, facilitators carefully and intentionally design a structure that provides guiding parameters,” says Kelly, “but allows people to choose the direction that aligns with their passion and purpose.”
1. Conferences Strike a Chord
Face-to-face encounters hold unique power in cultivating meaningful connections and nurturing community.
“Conferences should be like concerts by your favorite band,” says Lisa Shufro, conference curator and former executive producer of TEDMed, “a powerful experience shared by many that strikes some intimate inner chord in you.”
Kelly likens the power of convening to our most primal senses.
“Conferences bring people together with shared interests in a way that emulates a certain kind of camaraderie — like a tribe. Being virtual, fragmented or experiencing it alone doesn’t quite capture the same energy or momentum. This energy is the essence of what every leader should aspire as they nurture their organization and workforce.”
2. Conferences Bring Individuals Together Over a Common Goal
Rallying to a purpose builds bonds among members of a team, and that’s something live streaming or web conferencing simply can’t replicate.
“When I look at how people organize for really important family gatherings,” says Kelly, “everyone across the world, regardless of their resources, usually goes to unbelievable lengths and costs to come together.”
Like conferences, workplaces only function if there is a shared set of values and “a communal spirit that inspires and creates a sense of belonging beyond physical boundaries,” Leberecht states. In other words, people respond when they know why what they do matters.
The best conference curators—like those at TED, who bring together speakers around broad themes—communicate widely about the bigger picture, connecting local work to a global picture. “Every leader’s job is to capture the hearts and minds of their team members and clients,” says Kelly. “More than ever, that means operating with purpose. Do that and everything else will sort itself out.”
3. Conferences Create Narratives
The best conference organizers serve as storytellers, curating content that is immediately relevant to the audience while avoiding the obvious.
By building a program that follows the narrative structure (rising action, climax and falling action), leaders keep their audiences engaged and even tap into their empathy centers, strengthening a sense of community that would otherwise wither among virtual meetings and flexible work schedules.
One great example is C2, a conference that explores the intersection of commerce and creativity. Organizers intersperse talks, workshops, masterclasses and experimental brainstorming with carnival events, art exhibits and a “C2 Village,” providing an ambitious narrative for attendees to co-curate.
Similarly, leaders in the workplace can use storytelling to provide employees with direction, rather than instruction, says Kelly. They’re used as allegories and orienting measures, “providing touchstones that help guide our employees to make decisions around unforeseeable circumstances.”
4. Conferences Invite Serendipity
Most of the time, Shufro says, “it’s not the big names on the stage who make a great conference.” From chance meetings, to exposure to groundbreaking content, to the building of micro-connections, conferences that build out space and time for serendipitous encounters produce more meaningful outcomes for participants.
Organizations similarly need to operate with an open infrastructure, says Kelly, providing employees access to all the tools in the box so they can support one another in solving difficult problems. That, plus a diversified, cross-disciplinary workforce, creates the best odds for solution-building.
5. Conferences Embrace the Unforeseen
“Conference curators must be comfortable with giving up control and learn how to live with the uncertain and unexpected,” says Leberecht.
While conferences should be designed with a tightly curated program, there should be plenty of room for spontaneity and flow; it’s in that space that brilliance is often born.
For Kelly, giving up control boils down to having the right talent. “I always say I need every single person to have a hammer in their hand, building this company. Fill your seats with the smartest people you can find, then share your vision, passion and purpose and get out of the way.”
Great Leadership is also Great Curation
Bruno Giussani, curator of TED Global, says, “a conference is a discrete moment in time when a group of people entrust a curator with a few hours of their time and attention — the task of the curator is to make the best possible use of that time and attention.”
For most working adults, the majority of time and energy is spent within the workplace. As the way we work continues to evolve, workplace leaders (and conference organizers) interested in talent retention and performance must evolve as well, especially in areas of purpose-driven collaboration and open problem solving.