Enabling connections in a hybrid world
The challenges and benefits of running internal tech conferences in a hybrid-working fashion
This was the eighth year we’ve run internal tech conferences at the FT. The previous two years they have been virtual due to the pandemic. So this year we had the challenge of making a fully hybrid experience which was inclusive and accessible across three of our global offices where our tech teams are mainly based (London, Sofia and Manila). Sounds easy!?
When I joined the FT Delivery team last year in November 2021, my first week coincidentally landed in the inaugural week of the Delivery Room conference, which was organised by the Delivery Management team focusing on sharing the knowledge, experiences, and best practice that had been acquired over the years. Later in the same month it was the turn of the Engine Room conference which is engineering-focussed and a well established event in its seventh year of running.
I clearly remember working from home and being blown away by the conferences that not only gave me an accelerated insight into how delivery and engineering was done at the FT but their passion to drive a learning and fun culture. This had such a lasting impact on me and another colleague, who joined at the same time, that we both wanted to be part of the conference the next year. The experience I’m sure was also a deciding factor for me to move from being a contracted employee to becoming a permanent one. I also think this impact would have been the same if the conference was hybrid or fully in-person.
Hybrid or not to hybrid
Earlier this year when visiting my delivery colleagues in Sofia we were asked who would like to help organise the Delivery Room conference. Without a second thought I volunteered, as did my colleague whom I mentioned started at the same time as me. She is based in Sofia whilst I am in London.
One of the first decisions the organising team had to make was selecting the venue(s). The easy option would have been to go fully virtual, as there were many unknowns on how running a hybrid conference would flow between multiple locations physically and virtually. We also considered using different formats of interactive sessions. We did put together a pros and cons table but I’m sure we always wanted to go hybrid:
Rubix Cube Agenda Challenge
I learnt from a previous tech director’s blog post on the 2020 Engine Room;
“ They wanted to show people that we didn’t need to go to external conferences to learn: they had a lot of interesting and relevant experiences to share with each other. At the time teams were finding ways to work fully virtually, they were missing the more casual interactions we had with people: bumping into people outside the lifts, or in the coffee queue. They were tired of virtual quizzes but craved connection”
Fast forward and the same still holds true in today’s hybrid environment, as conferences should help enable connections but with an added challenge.
This extra challenge is to set an agenda that works for speakers in multiple locations, and time zones, with topics that flow well whether they were being hosted virtual or in person, allowing the hybrid audience to connect seamlessly. It’s kind of a four dimensional challenge (like a rubix cube I’m terrible at). How hard can this be?
So when the Delivery Room organising team put a call out for speakers and topics we got some great ideas from the delivery community. I noticed that quite a few of the topics were ones that were already seeded but just didn’t have the opportunity or space and time to go public. Internal Tech conferences give exactly that opportunity.
When organising a conference agenda it’s massively beneficial to have someone in the organising team who has been there, done that and got the t-shirt. We were very lucky as we had someone who not only got the t-shirt but had even co-written a book about it, which I unashamedly recommend if you are organising an internal conference. So armed with this experience and a keen organising team the agenda was soon settled. After a few iterations we had a healthy mix of in-person and online hosted talks, group interactive and panel sessions, across Sofia and London.
How to include everyone
Empathy of timings for a global audience is key to a successful and inclusive conference. The decision of when to start, smaller/longer break timings and when to end is an important one. Having things in the middle of the UK day gave us the best chance for people in our Sofia and Manila offices to be able to join in too. We recorded all the talks, as the afternoon sessions would still be late in these locations. Also lots of people are working flexibly at the moment so we wanted those people to be able to watch it later, as well as help make the conference memorable.
The conference should reflect the diversity of the organisation, and that means doing more than sending out a call for speakers and topics. As I mentioned we did that, and got a fantastic response, not only from people who have spoken before but new people and at all levels, from directors to juniors. Of course not everyone jumps at the chance, so we approached some people directly and gave the assurance that they would get all the support they needed. We created a buddy system that gave this support but also encouraged speakers to practise and get feedback in a safe space. This also gave the organising team the assurance that everyone was ready for the big day. This year’s Engine Room even had a sign language representative during the live stream of the conference to support our deaf colleagues.
Pre-recording a talk is also a great option which a few of the Engine Room speakers did. It’s also a useful contingency plan in case anyone is off sick (especially with Covid still around). It’s worth noting that pre-recording a talk does not necessarily equate to less effort, as one of my favourite talks from one of my team members shared that he ended up working over the weekend to get the video take he was happy with.
That conference vibe
When I chatted to some of the speakers who were hosting a physically located session beforehand they all said that this was the first time post-pandemic they were speaking at a conference in public. I got a sense of their nervousness but also their excitement from that lost feeling of speaking to a physical audience. The speakers who were virtual hosting all expressed how much easier it is to confidently speak publicly and have all their notes/prompts to hand.
On the other side of the fence, as part of the physical Engine Room audience in our London office I remembered once again what it was like to be back at an in-person conference. That buzz of people moving from room to room to find their preferred talk and bumping into people in the lift asking them which session they were attending.
In particular I wanted to get a sense of how “hybrid” the Engine Room conference was. So from a brief look round the room in London and then a slack message it was easy to find out. Albeit based on a point in time view at the beginning of the conference and certainly not exact science but the estimated count was:
- London Office ~30 people
- Sofia Office ~30 people
- Manila Office ~8 people (*note it was 6pm there)
- Online ~120 people
So give or take a bit of fluctuation and rounding let’s say about a third were in-person. I then asked myself does this actually mean anything if everyone is connecting no matter where they are, then so what?
Best of both worlds
I clearly remember a great talk that had the audiences both in the office and online completely engaged. The speaker used analogies of his breadmaking hobby with the effective re-use of design components. He even brought some of his homemade bread in for the audience and put up pictures of the various types of bread (drool emoji galore).
We always send out a feedback form after we run an internal tech conference, and this time the feedback for both conferences was extremely positive with quotes like;
“I was in the office but it seems that the hybrid style worked well for those ones attending remotely”
“Great organisation, every detail was considered — from hybrid ways of conducting it, through to time management, to the food and presents”
“Diverse topic in the talks”
“The order of the talks was great, worked well & built upon the themes of the day”
“Would have been good to have more of a split of speakers in London/Sofia and mixed up in morning and arvo sessions”
This kind of feedback not only validated what we wanted to achieve (back to the title of this post to “enable connection in a hybrid world”) but was constructive on the areas that worked and could have been better.
Who says you can’t have your cake (or bread in this case) and eat it?