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Organizations often schedule large events for the purposes of training, networking, and disseminating pertinent information to and from experts. For example, companies run conferences to discuss best practices and orchestrate health fairs to provide employees with an opportunity to learn about available benefits and interact with a variety of health and wellness experts.

During the pandemic, many of these events became unsafe and impractical. Occupancy restrictions limited the number of allowed attendees, and general concerns with safety discouraged many from attending. As a result, organizations began to hold virtual versions of these events and learned they could be more affordable, scalable, and safer.

Despite the clear benefits of these virtual alternatives, many leaders are eager to bring back in-person gatherings whenever it becomes safe to do so. This is because virtual events, especially larger ones, come with several downsides. For example, leaders worry that virtual attendees will be less engaged and struggle to form or foster personal connections. These costs are significant for events that aim to share critical information or offer networking opportunities.

 

Under-Recognized Advantages Of Virtual Events

These drawbacks may be enough to dissuade some organizations from holding virtual gatherings. However, recent research from the University of Texas at Austin shows that this reaction is premature, as virtual events possess several significant but under-appreciated benefits. Specifically, the researchers found that virtual academic conferences are considerably more inclusive and environmentally friendly than their in-person counterparts.

When it comes to environmental impact, the differences between the in-person and virtual conferences are staggering. The researchers estimate that for international conferences, one in-person attendee has the same carbon footprint as 7,000 virtual ones.

The effects on inclusivity are equally jaw-dropping. For example, the team found that women’s attendance at virtual conferences increased by as much as 253%. Similarly, attendance among gender-queer individuals (i.e., individuals who understand themselves in ways that challenge binary constructions of gender) increased by as much as 700%.  

The reasons for the higher turnouts are varied. When it comes the difference in attendance rates among women, the researchers speculate that an inequitable distribution of childcare responsibilities was one of the primary barriers holding them back from attending in-person events. They state:

Even for those researchers who are able to travel, the time away from home necessitated by work-related travel is intrinsically exclusionary to care-givers, who are primarily women. Yet, given how important conference attendance is to career advancement, this community is frequently faced with the decision of choosing between work and families. 

Gender-queer individuals may feel more comfortable attending virtual events for different reasons. Individuals from these communities are often subject to harassment, especially microaggressions. Sometimes, this leads LGBTQ+ individuals to hide their gender identities. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation found that 46% of LGBTQ+ workers are still “closeted” at work, 17% are exhausted from hiding their sexual orientation, and 13% are exhausted from hiding their gender identity. Already tired from hiding their true selves, gender-queer individuals may feel more comfortable in virtual formats where there is less of a need to continuously monitor their actions to conceal their gender identity and avoid harassment.

 

Takeaway

Though the events that businesses hold are typically smaller in scale than international academic conferences, many of the findings from this study are likely to generalize. Domestic flights across the country can quickly rack up a hefty carbon footprint. Even when it comes to more local conferences, virtual versions will always be more environmentally friendly.

Caregiving will remain an issue as well. Taking just a half-day off can pose significant challenges, whether one is caring for a child, parent, or some other loved one. Unfortunately, help is difficult to come by, and many potential attendees may not have the time or energy to locate it for a corporate event.

The issues impacting LGBTQ+ individuals are already present in day-to-day business operations. As a result, there is little reason to think these concerns would affect their decision to attend an academic conference but not a corporate networking event or health fair.

Thus, as businesses decide how to deliver their yearly events, they must be mindful of their decisions' sociological and environmental impacts.

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