Here We Go Again… With an Uncertain Future, Be Prepared for a Return to Virtual

The fall of 2021 was supposed to be the season when we could look back on our experimental pandemic accomplishments with pride and finally enjoy ‘real life’ again together. But the surge in Delta variant cases has knocked us all back a few steps and caused many organizations to return to virtual.

And, now, a depressing forecast

According to a clinical virologist quoted in The Atlantic, we’re in “a new stage in our extended parlay with SARS-CoV-2… New variants will continue to appear at unprecedented speeds until we get to the point where the virus is not allowed to replicate this often, or this quickly… A continued arms race with the virus is inevitable.”

Ugh. And another slap in the face: “The ‘zero COVID’ dream of fully stamping out the virus is a fantasy. Instead, the pandemic ends when almost everyone has immunity, preferably because they were vaccinated or alternatively because they were infected and survived. When that happens, the cycle of surges will stop and the pandemic will peter out.”

tarot card reader is predicting a return to virtual

How to cope with an unending pandemic and master the return to virtual

We can count on one thing… there’s no returning to ‘normal’. We’re living our ‘normal’ right now, the ups and downs, the “Plan A, Plan B, nope Plan A, oh darn Plan B” scenarios thrown at us. So, how to cope…

Don’t sugarcoat the situation

Let’s face it, ‘normal’ is like herd immunity at this point: a pipe dream. Another variant could cause the same amount of havoc—or worse. Be an optimistic realist.

Anticipate disruption to your plans

You want to be ready for virtual this time around. Don’t get caught off guard like last year. Plan for virtual from the very beginning—and go through with those plans even if you do meet in-person. The virtual event doesn’t have to be simultaneous, i.e., a true hybrid event. Schedule it for a week or two after the in-person event and tell people to save the date.

Think about the design of the virtual experience you offer. People have changed their relationship with virtual over the past 18 months; your format should reflect that. Because everyone has virtual fatigue and competing responsibilities, consider scheduling a conference for only a few hours a day. For those who want more, offer themed discussion rooms during the off-hours.

Recognize and overcome anti-digital bias

Who’s making and influencing decisions about virtual events? Sometimes, people who always attended in-person events couldn’t care less about online events. Who’s thinking about all the people (members and nonmembers) who never came to your in-person events—and never will?

Recognize when a vocal segment of members (or staff) is biased against virtual events. This bias prevented many associations from even attempting to deliver education and other programs virtually during the pandemic. They made assumptions about their members’ interest without surveying their entire market.

How long can you go without delivering value or delivering it only to the small subset of your market who’s willing and able to travel to meetings? For many people, virtual will never measure up to their in-person experience, so they don’t see the point of attending. But for others, virtual is a welcomed windfall of the pandemic. Finally, they have access to education and conversations with peers. Don’t let the anti-virtual bias of the few prevent your association from serving the many.

a storm's approaching - be ready for a return to virtual

Get the technology stack you need

“The global pandemic created an urgent need not only for organizations to take their educational offerings online, but also—as more people have become used to online learning—to deliver an experience that meets their new and higher expectations,” said Celisa Steele, managing director of Tagoras. “Even when we are eventually able to resume all our traditional face-to-face programming, the need and demand for e-learning is unlikely to recede to previous levels. As a result, we're seeing organizations being much more thoughtful and strategic about their learning technology investments.”

The Australian Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association (ARITA) is thankful they invested in learning technology. Australia is back in lockdown mode, so ARITA had to return to virtual events instead of the in-person ones they had planned for the fall. They were prepared for that change in plans because their TopClass learning management system (LMS) is integrated with Zoom.

Raquel Bortoletto, ARITA’s operations director, said, “We implemented TopClass LMS to solve two of our problems: the desire to have both an LMS and a tool to run our virtual conference. We did a lot of research and learned most tools would cost us between A$10K and A$25K to run one event, whereas with the LMS we can run as many events and courses online as we wish and get more benefits from it.”

If you’re considering an LMS for your association’s future—and reading this post upon publication—you can still catch Live Review, a two-day online event hosted by ReviewMyLMS, an offshoot of Tagoras, on September 14 and 15, where you can see demonstrations of 13 learning management systems, including TopClass LMS.

“Having TopClass LMS already implemented helped us make quick decisions to expand our offerings and took a lot of pressure off the face-to-face events we can’t run,” said Raquel.

Adopt a digital mindset

A digital mindset is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s mandatory—the pandemic has proven that. We saw how associations further along in their digital transformation had an easier time of it when the pandemic hit. Many of them had already figured out how to use technology to help them achieve their goals and deliver more value to their members and market. They were already experimenting with virtual learning programs and social events.

A digital mindset means tough decisions. You must assess the skill sets of staff:

•    What skills are missing?
•    Who’s willing to acquire new skills and who isn’t?
•    How will responsibilities shift?
•    Which new positions must be funded and which ones must be eliminated?

In an Associations Now article about a digital mindset, Maddie Grant, principal consultant at Propel, spoke about culture change. She said you can’t silo innovative activity (like virtual events) in the meetings department. Much of this work needs to involve people from many teams working together as they figure out how to better deliver virtual education, social, and networking programs; create roles for sponsors in these new programs; and expand your association’s reach into new virtual audiences.

It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Pandemic fatigue is no joke. Too much change wears you down. Meanwhile, many of us crave what we can’t have. Even the most cautious and introverted of us are tired of not seeing our far away peers—different voices and faces of friends, acquaintances, and strangers. How can you help tired members and professionals in your community who are craving the company of others? What can your association do differently this time in the return to virtual?

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