The Show Will Go On - top tips from running our first leadership event in the ‘virtual classroom’
COVID-19 has disrupted all sectors, but it hit the Learning and Development world immediately and decisively in the first few weeks of the pandemic reaching Europe. Wavelength was caught at the leading-edge of a whole sector having to re-think how it delivers to their clients. Here's what unfolded and what we learnt about L&D in the virtual age.
Stuart Tootal DSO OBE, former Commander 3PARA and a regular speaker at Wavelength Connect events comments “no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy” and that has certainly proved to be the case as the shifting sands of the early weeks of the pandemic disrupted our business daily, sometimes hourly.
Written by Jessica Stack, Co-founder, Wavelength & Director, Wavelength Connect
A month ago it seemed almost unthinkable that we would be facing the current restrictions on movement around the globe and that governments would issue ‘work and school from home’ directives. Now in the face of the current crisis, leaders find themselves at the front line trying to establish a ‘new normal’ and maintain the business as usual, even if it is really very unusual.
Our flagship six-month leadership programme, Wavelength Connect, was due to kick off on 17-19 March with On Your Marks. It’s an event we all look forward to and it usually takes place in the heart of an organic farm at an eco-conference centre, Sheepdrove. It gives individual leaders and teams of leaders space to reflect, to learn from an inspiring and insightful roster of leadership speakers and a rich and thought-provoking curriculum, and the opportunity to connect with other leaders from a diverse array of organisations and industrial sectors.
This year things couldn’t have been more different…
Three weeks out from the live event, there are around 20 Coronavirus cases reported in the UK and we hear of the first death of a UK citizen. Reacting faster than most governments, the threat of new corporate company policies on travel restrictions, on ‘mass gatherings’, and of home working are looming over us. Our corporate clients have started to voice their concerns about their participants being able to join us at Sheepdrove.
Thursday 5th March
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just launched the government's Coronavirus Action Plan and the outbreak is declared a "level four incident". Due to their new company policies, two of our USA-based speakers are no longer able to travel. We decide to invest in some basic preparation work on a live streaming platform, Connect My Event, “just in case”.
Monday 9th March
Team Wavelength meet, as always, to do our final walk through of the event. In the face of uncertainty over participant attendance and with a number of speakers now video conferencing in from the USA and China, we re-write the agenda to ensure that the live experience still meets our exactingly high standards.
Tuesday 10th March
Italy imposes an extended and nationwide lock down. As an increasing number of clients are now navigating their new (and often wildly divergent) company travel and mass gathering policies, we pivot to planning a hybrid event: this will have both a live and virtual audience with speakers on stage at Sheepdrove and beaming in from the USA and China via video conferencing. We will live stream core sessions from the event to our virtual audience. We start to build the full Connect My Event platform and test access with a key group of clients. We produce a Your Guide to e-Marks pdf to help participants get the most from the three-day virtual classroom.
Wednesday 11th March
The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic and the USA closes its’ borders to travellers from 26 European countries. Globally, the death toll passes 4,000.
Thursday 12th March
Following a Cobra meeting the Prime Minister tells the UK that anyone with a continuous cough or a fever should self-isolate for seven days.
At around 4pm there’s a tipping point: it becomes clear to us that an overwhelming number of participants, our two remaining international speakers, and even speakers based here in the UK are not going to be able to join the event in person. We make the decision that we are going to live stream the event from Sheepdrove, with UK-based speakers on site as far as possible and all international speakers beaming in. We will have a small audience of ‘friends of Wavelength’ to add a bit of atmosphere. I call the key members of my team and they in turn have a conference call to re-design the staging to a single space and revisit the AV and live streaming requirements again.
Friday 13th March
Our challenge becomes how to deliver the experience and value of the live event in the virtual classroom. We re-write the agenda again to remove the breakout sessions so everyone can ‘attend’ all the sessions – we have to stand some speakers down to achieve this. We finalise our Disaster Recovery Plan and email the COVID-19 self-declaration forms to everyone who will be on site. We are finally ready.
Sunday 15th March
The design team start their set build at Sheepdrove. I drive down to be ready for Monday’s main set up day. As I arrive, one of my colleague calls to say that she has just discovered that she has been in contact with a friend who has subsequently been very ill. We agree that although she herself is well, she will not attend the event in person.
Monday 16th March
My colleague calls again to say both she and her partner have been ill over-night. With a dawning horror I realise the full Team Wavelength have been in close contact with her within the last seven days – indeed, at our final walk through the previous Monday.
My Co-founder, Adrian, and I make the decision made to abandon Sheepdrove. We pivot yet again and will now deliver e-Marks fully virtually and from locations across the UK and the globe. I drive back home, making calls to the team for the entire journey, and there re-work the agenda for what I hope will be the final time.
That evening the prime minister advises against "non-essential" travel, urges people to avoid pubs and clubs, and to work from home where possible.
Tuesday 17th March
The government begins holding daily press conferences and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announces £300bn in loan guarantees.
We go live with e-Marks, our first leadership event fully in the virtual classroom.
We finally deliver the three-day event from multiple global locations:
- Team Wavelength in Buckinghamshire, Brighton, Bath, and Whitstable;
- Our live streaming team in Nottingham;
- Our speakers dialling in from: Silicon Valley, Canada, India, China, Denmark, and nine further locations across the UK.
So, what did we learn?
1. Communicate and collaborate
The impact of home working, travel and mass gathering bans has disrupted the Learning and Development world immediately and decisively – we were just caught at the leading-edge of a whole sector having to re-think how it delivers to their clients. Indeed, many of our clients are also having to pivot the delivery of their own internal L&D programmes. Communicating quickly and clearly as our plans unfolded (and changed) and helping them to bring their participants on board with the new reality of learning in the virtual classroom was crucial. We shared best-practice across organisations of how to support participants and land lessons, and ensured we incorporated client feedback and suggestions wherever possible.
2. Pivot on the pivot
I actually lost track of the number of times we re-worked the event as we went from a live event via a hybrid through a ‘tv show’ to the fully virtual classroom. We deployed our team’s strengths strategically, keeping creative and innovative by getting input and external perspectives from our Associates all the way through the process.
Practically, as the UK grappled with over-whelmed and saturated broadband as companies trialled home working (which coincided with the middle, longest day of e-Marks) the quality of our live stream suffered - “This streaming stuff is not for the faint-hearted!” as one of our AV team commented. Over-night we pre-recorded some of Thursday’s presentations to mitigate the broadband saturation. So live streamed, but not at the expense of the participant experience.
3. Wrap the time for reflection around the inspiration
At Wavelength we know it’s not enough to sit and receive learning and development passively, we are always looking for our clients to do something differently as a result of their experiences, so making time to reflect and land the lessons is crucial. We created a Reflection Sheet framework to structure their thinking individually. We used small WhatsApp groups to help participants ask questions during the live stream and share reflections overnight. We are running follow up sessions that bring leaders together from across organisations and sectors to share and consolidate insights and lessons together.
4. Curate the catch-up content
We recorded (and in some cases re-recorded) sessions as films and podcasts which are available on catch up. However, we really thought about how to curate this for those that didn’t see it live – just sending a link to the sessions clearly isn’t enough. On Friday morning, we went back into the office and recorded introductions to each presentation that framed the context of the wider conversation and topic. Then I built a new password-protected section of the website where the content is structured by theme so that leaders who are navigating the new demands that home working and business as unusual is throwing their way can catch up in bite-sized chunks.
5. Never again!
Don’t plan a full day of content, let alone three! We always knew it was a big ask to expect people to sit through hours of content, no matter how brilliant. And it’s not an urban myth: our experience was that the broadband definitely gets worse in the afternoon. Plan short, sharp, dedicated and distraction-free time in the virtual classroom where your participants can give themselves permission to switch off from the day to day and focus fully on their learning.
6. And Finally...
We know that to keep our teams motivated, our goals in sight and our businesses in the black we need agility, pragmatism, and a sense of ('trench') humour. And never, ever forget to say THANK YOU.
Thank you to all our speakers for your patience and understanding as you were briefed and re-briefed, did set up testing and, in some cases pre- or re-records of your session.
This blog is dedicated, however, to those who worked tirelessly - and mainly behind the scenes - to keep the show on the road: to my amazing Team Jess without which e-Marks would definitely never have happened.
I'm so proud of and thank you to:
Adrian Simpson, Sarah Dryden, Caroline Redding, Wavelength
Our e-Marks Associates:
Matt White, Connecting on Purpose
Tim Frost, More than Capable
Neil Denbow, Sound of Music
Sash Pochibko, Connect My Event
Charlie Cridlan, Designer
Jonathan Clarke, EventureLive
Alli Cooke, Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre
Susie Carlino, Creative Draping Academy
Bruce Lambert, Gripped Communications