A global company meeting in times of COVID-19
From local to (Porsche) Digital within just two weeks
The escalating outbreak of COVID-19 prompted Porsche Digital to move the planned global company meeting online. Read how they connected the international teams, which tools they used to collaborate, and what they learned.
If you have been following this blog, you probably know that events in all shapes and sizes play a big role for us at Porsche and Porsche Digital. We regularly organize, host, and attend small- and large-scale events at our offices and other locations around the world. Whether AI Mondays in our Digital Experience Foundry, Berlin’s re:publica or the international Web Summit in Lisbon, panels, trade shows, conferences, workshops and other professional gatherings are a great way to network, meet people, stay up to date and learn from the best in the field.
However, the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to lockdowns and the cancellation and postponement of events, as well as forcing many of us to work from home. While we have to adapt to these new circumstances, this does not mean that we cannot continue to connect with one another, share ideas and support each other.
Porsche Digital had originally planned to hold its global company meeting on March 31, but the escalating outbreak of COVID-19 prompted us to move the event online. By the middle of March, when the coronavirus had already spread all over the world, we knew that it would be irresponsible to hold a physical event with our global colleagues. But rather than canceling or postponing it, we decided to adapt our global meeting to the necessities of this situation. Instead, we went all digital. And this is how we did it.
Bringing together a global organization
As a Design Facilitator and Design Thinking Coach at Porsche Digital, my responsibilities include not only facilitating various project teams and implementing the fundamental ideas of agile working, but I am also in charge of bringing our globally structured organization together to help us progress and develop as a company in the best possible way. Last year, we organized and managed the Porsche Digital Camp in Ludwigsburg, a global company event to strengthen the network and culture after the merger of Porsche Digital GmbH and the Porsche Digital Lab. The feedback was great, so we decided to do it again and turn it into an annual company meeting.
We had planned this year’s Global Org.Experience.Sprint as a retrospective of the organizational change months in advance, starting in late 2019. Due to the global nature of our company, we originally conceived the event as a decentralized workshop spanning several continents and time zones. With locations in Germany, the U.S., Israel, and China, we are truly an international organization. And we wanted to reflect that fact to some extent. The plan was to create and work on a digital artefact in one location and then pass it on to the next, thereby combining local onsite activities with virtual online sessions. In a sense, we had already made the shift from physical to virtual event already to some extent before we were forced to do so.
New digital challenges rise up
Nevertheless, due to the coronavirus, we were now faced with an immense challenge. We only had two weeks to move the meeting fully online. How do you organize and host virtual meetings with more than one hundred employees in several different geographies and time zones? Challenging times call for new ideas and approaches.
We redesigned our event as a digital Barcamp, scrapping the onsite activities and the digital artifact idea in favor of virtual meetings and working sessions. Fortunately, there is also a range of powerful tools, platforms, and services at organizers’ disposal that help make our jobs easier and that serve as useful replacements for face-to-face meetings and working sessions.
For example, we used FunRetro, an agile retrospective tool, to ask employees in advance to share their ideas and feedback on what works well, where we can improve and what we can focus on to progress as a company. This was ten days before the actual event. After looking at the input and clustering the answers, we invited the participants to vote their preferred themes in simple polls.
A virtual hello to San Jose, Tel-Aviv, Shanghai, Berlin and Atlanta
On March 31, we kicked off the event with a town hall call with our CEO Mattias Ulbrich and COO Stefan Zerweck, using Microsoft Teams (which is our central tool for video calls and chats). Although we had sent a reminder mail to everyone at Porsche Digital in the morning, we were not quite sure how many people would actually join our virtual, remote event. Attendance was voluntary, since we were looking for real commitment from participants. With more than one hundred people from around the world joining the Org.Experience.Sprint, this was truly a global meeting — and a huge success for us.
To get started, we introduced the basic features and functions of Teams and established some guidelines and conventions. Then, participants could freely choose the topics they want to work on, which included, for instance, scouting, leadership, diversity, organizational silos, and global collaboration.
To keep things simple, we suggested to make groups of ten per session and formed regional teams according to their location. Though participants chose themselves which session they might join. To ensure the self-paced Barcamp flavor of the event, we provided a shared spreadsheet schedule where participants found an overview of all sessions with direct links to the related channels on Microsoft Teams as well as to the video calls they could join without formal invite.
The working sessions lasted ninety minutes and each group had two moderators. Each session had the same structure, with a script and a digital FunRetro board. At the end of the day, we had a wrap-up call to gather results and assess next steps forward. This was also a handover call from Germany to the next location and time zone in California, followed by another handover call from California to Shanghai and back to Germany, to close the event with a wrap-up.
What did we learn?
As we’re not the only organization that experiments with new formats like this at the moment, I’d like to share some of our key learnings.
1. Organizing a remote event is complex — keep it simple!
One of the most challenging parts of organizing and managing a remote event has to do with complexity. It is important to keep things simple and focus in order to make everything understandable and manageable for a large, diverse group of people. Instead of using ten different tools and following fifteen different ideas for workshop session design, it is better to focus on a small set of tools and formats.
2. You have to know your tools to get creative
We have also learned that the success of a remote event depends very much on the equipment, tools and platforms that are used. Moreover, the better you know the specific tools, the more you can use them for creative processes. Yet, while digital competence is an important skill, you cannot assume that everyone perfectly knows the conventions, etiquette and interaction patterns surrounding remote work. When is my turn in a call? How do I handle video chats and messages? How do I blur the background? Practice is important. Thus, the little exercises we did all together at the very beginning of the event were extremely beneficial for the subsequent course of the event.
3. Virtual events can generate a sense of community as well
Of course, virtual remote events cannot fully replace the value of a real-life face-to-face meeting. But one of the biggest learnings we’re taking away from this is that virtual events have their own advantages. Our Global Org.Experiene.Sprint has proven that. What’s more, despite the physical distance, there was a real sense of community and collegiality at our global meeting.
Taking a global company meeting online within just two weeks was challenging. But I am very happy with the result: We used the teams’ output to create an action list that the local teams are now using for different change projects. Besides that, I believe that it can only be beneficial for us as a global team if we develop the essential skills and expertise for remote work and collaboration. It has been a pleasure to gather all our colleagues and I am looking forward to seeing you next year!
Jens Otto Lange is Design Facilitator and Design Thinking Coach at Porsche Digital.
About this publication: Where innovation meets tradition. There’s more to Porsche than sports cars — we’re tackling new challenges, develop digital products and think digital with a focus on the customer. On our Medium blog, we tell these stories. It’s about our #nextvisions, smart technologies and the people that drive our digital journey.