Hosting conferences virtually provides environmental and personal benefits, study finds

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Experts say it’s difficult to achieve these same outcomes with in-person gatherings

As companies continue to try to balance virtual and in-person work, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin uncovered interesting findings related to corporate conferences. 

Their work showed that when deciding between hosting an in-person or virtual conference, opting for a virtual event is better for the environment and more inclusive for long-distance attendees. 

“Conferences disseminate research, grow professional networks, and train employees,” the researchers wrote. “Unfortunately, they also contribute to climate change and present barriers to achieving a socially sustainable work environment. Virtual conferences demonstrated a clearly discernible and, in some cases, orders of magnitude improvement across nearly all metrics”  

Creating opportunities for diversity 

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from in-person conferences across several different industries that turned virtual over the last few years. They gathered information from these events and asked participants to answer questions about their personal experiences related to attending in-person and virtual events. 

It was clear to the researchers that virtual events won out over in-person conferences for several reasons. From a personal standpoint, virtual events required less travel time and less time away from work for attendees; this translated into spending less money to attend conferences. 

The study also showed that virtual conferences made it easier for more diverse attendees to participate in networking events. International workers weren’t constrained by travel requirements, cost, or time away from work, which made it possible to remotely engage with long-distance colleagues. 

“When we went virtual, it brought a lot more voices to the table that just weren’t able to be there for in-person events because of the cost, time, and other reasons,” said researcher Kasey Faust. 

Similarly, the researchers learned that virtual conferences had a significant impact on women – especially working mothers. Without the demands of traveling, it was easier for women to be more active with their colleagues while remaining local. Overall, the study showed that women’s attendance at work conferences went up by more than 250% due to the increasing number of virtual conferences. 

Staying virtual is better for the environment

Hosting virtual conferences also generated some environmental benefits. Workers were able to learn from each other and network with their colleagues without the environmental footprint of domestic or international travel. The study showed that the environmental impact of one attendee traveling to an in-person conference prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was the same as 7,000 people attending an online conference. 

Though there were several benefits linked to virtual events, the researchers found that one drawback was that some participants felt it was hard to stay connected and engaged on a virtual platform. They explained that while many industries are shifting back to in-person events, having the option to participate either remotely or in person will likely be the norm moving forward. 

“Tech companies are already doing this with their events,” said researcher Manish Kumar. “Smart people will hybridize their events at least to some extent.” 

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