Level Up Week 2020: How we evolved our internal tech conference for our remote-first world
Since 2018 Redgate’s Product Development organisation have run an internal conference to inspire people to engage in their personal development, build capability across our teams and bring people together to learn, share and collaborate. The conference — which we called Level Up — got us out of our usual working environments to learn from other Redgaters working on different things and gather fresh insights & opinions.
In 2018 our first Level Up conference had 80 attendees with around 20 people speaking to deliver sessions. Last year, Level Up 2019 had 120 attendees and almost 40 speakers. Both conferences were a big success, garnering great feedback from attendees and speakers alike, and enabling some tangible improvements in our teams.
If you want to know more about our previous Level Up conferences, check out this blog post.
At the start of this year, we had big plans for this year’s event — the Level Up 2020 Conference. Our CEO was keen to build on the success of the product development focused event and widen the scope to include the whole company in a day of learning and personal development. This would mean expanding the conference to include every UK-based Redgater (250+ people) and expand the programme content, so it provided engaging and valuable sessions for everyone — from sales representatives and finance controllers to software engineers and our HR advisors. Quite a challenge, but the Level Up Organising Team and I gladly accepted it, then went about planning the event. We booked a magnificent venue, set some OKRs, worked out the scope of the programme and even created some brilliant branding.
Enter Global Pandemic
Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and it became very clear that we were not going to be able to put 250 employees in a conference centre together any time soon.
Following that realisation, the organising team almost gave up on having an event this year. Our full focus rightly became our day jobs and our home lives; segueing our teams and business to be effective working from home and looking after our nearest and dearest. The same as everyone else, I guess. Due to the clunky nature of our remote working in those early days and the attrition of never-ending Zoom meetings, we struggled to get as excited about a remote Level Up as we had been about our physical event.
Eventually though, once we got over the first few months of lockdown, we saw that we needed to get back to doing more than just surviving remote work, and the team gradually got our collective heads around running a remote learning & development conference. Initially, we started thinking about a straight switch into a single day remote conference, but we just couldn’t shake the feeling that wasn’t something people were going to be able to get excited about or comfortably engage in.
We decide to do some research and spoke to people across Redgate to see what they thought — they seemed to agree. Those who had already attended remote conferences, workshops, and training sessions during lockdown told us it was difficult to make the most of them. Audience engagement, where many people get the most value from these events, really suffered and concentrating on your screen for too long was a huge challenge. Plus, the flexibility required to balance home commitments — such as home schooling — was not compatible with a solid day spent at an online event.
We took a step back, deciding to look at the subject from another angle by asking ourselves “what would a remote conference allow us to do, that a physical conference does not”. We soon realised a virtual event might give us some important advantages. This insight gave us the nudge we needed to get past out disappointment of our lost physical event and get excited about what we could achieve with a virtual conference.
The benefits of a remote company conference
Here are the advantages we felt a virtual event would allow us to achieve:
1. We could deliver the conference content at a more sustainable pace
Rather than one intense day of talks and workshops, we decided the virtual format meant we could run a week-long event, spreading the exciting content we would have had at a conference over 5 days. That did not mean MORE sessions for us to schedule; it’s the same number of sessions but spread out to leave gaps in the timetable. We felt that would allow people to take a break from their screens, look after things at home and do some ‘normal’ work.
You could never do this with a physical conference at an external venue — it would mean shipping the event’s attendees out to a lecture theatre for 2 hours a day for 5 days in a row!
As a result, the Level Up 2020 Conference became Level Up Week 2020.
2. We could open the event up for our global Redgaters
Redgate has it’s HQ in Cambridge, UK, but has offices around the world in the US, Australia and Germany. We were always keen to make our L&D focussed conference accessible for folks in Redgate’s global offices not just our Cambridge-based people, but we didn’t think this was possible for a physical event. A virtual event is a much better choice for people across the world to engage with, providing we schedule sessions times at sympathetic times of the day.
3. We could record everything to allow people to catch-up at a time that works best for them
With the virtual event we would naturally be able to record every single session and build up a library of awesome content to be watched or re-watched at a later time. While this is possible with a physical event, it logistically tricky for a multi-track event that takes place on that single conference day. A remote event makes this task so easy.
We could plan to add sessions to a full library of content within hours of the live presentation. The valuable sessions that we would spend time, effort and skill preparing for Level Up Week would be preserved for years to come, ensuring we get as much value and insights as possible from that energy.
4. We could provide something to suit a wider variety of learning styles
Some people like in-depth talks to learn all they can about a subject, some people want a quick introduction to a topic for inspiration to explore on their own. Some find they retain lessons from getting their hands dirty in interactive workshops and others would rather not have to collaborate with other people while they get to grips with something new. Some find they need a deadline of a live talk in order to actually watch a session, others want to watch a session when it suits their timetable and they have some flow time. Some want to dip in and out of sessions as fits their day, some campers want to sit down for 3 hours and watch EVERYTHING. Some people want to debate what they have just seen straight-away, others really don’t.
A physical conference would have allowed us to provide something to suit most of those preferences but a virtual event allowed us to hit all of them — and that was important in order to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to invest in their learning and development.
5. We could bring Redgaters together at a time when we really needed it
In mid-March 2020 Redgaters, like many people around the world, found themselves to unexpectedly to be full-time remote workers. This wasn’t a situation most of us would have chosen and we certainly not something we were well prepared for.
In our teams we scrambled to transform our practices, processes and attitudes to make distributed groups work — and we were pretty successful with that. What we were less attentive to, was our relationship with the wider company, our connectedness to other teams in adjoining areas of the business and our social relationships with people we know from across Redgate.
The global pandemic, lockdown, stress and the isolation of home working took its toll on many of us. And while many of us closely connected with, and well supported by, their immediate colleagues, we were losing touch with what it felt like to be part of a bigger community.
A big cross-company event like Level Up Week would give us an opportunity to reconnect with the company and see friends from across the company that we have not bumped into since March.
Level Up Week takes shape
In June, we announced our plans to evolve the Level Up conference into a format that better suited a fully online event; in September we would be running a week-long event, Level Up Week 2020. The aim of the event remained the same — to invest in people’s learning and personal development, encouraging us to share the skills, knowledge and ideas we need for a successful Redgate and for Redgaters’ personal growth. We also decided on a theme that we believed the whole company could come together behind — The Growth Mindset.
The aim of the theme was to set people’s expectations for the type of content that would be available during Level Up Week, and to help potential speakers decide which topics are appropriate. The theme also needed to reflect the Learning & Development mission of Level Up Week but shouldn’t be too restrictive in terms of what people could share at the event.
A growth mindset is the belief that people can develop their talents through hard work, good strategies and input from others. The concept comes from Carol Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset.
A fixed mindset tells us that if something new is difficult or effort-intensive, we are inadequate. A growth mindset tells us that if something is hard, it means we’re in the process of growing new capabilities.
Equipped with our programme theme and with a date to aim for, we went about creating the event.
The Big Event
On 7th September 2020 Redgate kicked off it’s first ever global learning and development conference — Level Up Week 2020. By the time the week was over, we’d collectively seen 14 talks, 21 lightning talks, 10 hours of workshops, 11 hours of video content and 42 Redgate speakers sharing their skills & ideas. In the final count, more than 275 Redgaters had attended at least one session during the event; that’s 75% of all Redgaters globally.
We were blown away about the level of engagement with the event from our remote workforce and the sheer quality and influence of the sessions people ran for their fellow Redgaters.
But what about those remote event advantages we were hoping for?
1. We said we could deliver the conference content at a more sustainable pace.
Feedback on the pace of the event schedule was excellent, with people reflecting that they found it manageable to fit sessions into their day and that they could absorb the lessons without being worn out. Here’s a few of the comments we received; “Just a brilliant week. You could’ve fitted everything on the same day but that would’ve been awful — just like online conferences are at the moment where it’s exhausting!”, “Excellent, much prefer a week rather than trying to cram it all into one or two days, we should do this again”. Whoop!
2. We said we could open the event up for our global offices.
Going virtual really did open-up Level Up Week as an event for all Redgate, and it was great to see folks based out of US offices attend sessions and take a full part in the discussion around talks. A highlight for me was the closing session at the end of the week, where we could all scan across pages and pages of Redgaters from across the world coming together to review a week of learning and reconnection with the wider company (I took a snap of just one of the multiple Zoom screens full of Redgaters, below).
However, the conference schedule and participation was still skewed towards the majority of Redgaters based in the UK — so we could have done more to make it easier for international folks to engage. We hope to improve this next time by involving our global offices more deeply in the preparation of the week and rethinking our scheduling.
3. We said we could record everything to allow people to catch-up at a time that works best for them.
During the week we were indeed able to add sessions to a library of content within hours of the live presentation and people often watched sessions within a day or two of them being broadcast. We even have Redgaters who have joined the company since the event watch and get value from the recorded sessions on Microsoft Stream.
4. We said we could provide something to suit a wider variety of learning styles
Our programme had 30-minute presentations, collections of 8-minute long Lightning Talks, 2.5 hour in-depth workshops, group panel sessions, networking and social events and, of course, the aforementioned recordings of everything for consumption on-demand.
All these session styles garnered positive feedback as people selected the type of session that suited their learning style, the busyness of their day or how they were feeling. For instance, some people really loved the networking event but many passed on something that interactive, favouring to catch-up on a talk recorded earlier in the day. I think most people found something that worked well for them, which was the aim.
Here’s a peek at the overall schedule (captured after the event, so showing links to recordings and slides):
5. We said we could bring Redgaters together at a time when we really needed it
One of the most surprising things about Level Up Week, for me at least, was the palpable sense of reconnection with the wider company and our more distant colleagues. I can’t explain how lovely it was to log into the first session of the event, and scan across the pages and pages of Redgaters, smiling and ready to take part in Level Up Week together.
Our approach connected individuals from across the company. One attendee told me that in the past when they have attended a physical conference they spent their time outside sessions chatting with people they work with every day, but during our virtual event they interacted with people from across the company in the Level Up Week Slack channel and our interactive sessions.
Had we cancelled our company conference, and not challenged ourselves to do something virtually, we’d have missed that opportunity to help each other feel part of something bigger and help folks when they really needed a boost.
Was it actually worth it?
As I’ve just explained, there were plenty of good signs that things went well during the week. There was a great buzz in the company’s communication channels, the logistics of the event were smooth and the sessions were well presented. But the Level Up Week organising team and I really wanted to understand if the event had had the impact we wanted — that we had encouraged people to invest in their learning & personal development, both during the week and afterwards. The event took a lot of time and effort to prepare and deliver — by the organising team, our speakers, our IT team and many others across the company, not to mention the 275 people who attended at least one session live. It was important we understood if that effort was well directed.
To do that we surveyed our attendees and revisited the objectives we drew up in February 2020. This is a long post already, so if you want to find out whether Level Up Week actually delivered the outcomes we wanted, then take a look at my follow-up post — What was the impact of Level Up Week 2020?