Interview: Anders Herlitz on organizing online workshops

Q: Anders, this spring you organized an online workshop (Climate Ethics Meets Covid-19, 29 May), what was it like?

A: I think it went really well, thank you. During these times of social distancing it is nice to get a chance to see colleagues and to hear about what people are working on. It is also nice to get a chance for some (virtual) social interaction.

Q: What went particularly well?

A: One thing that’s nice with virtual events is that one gets the opportunity to include people who live far away without too much hassle, and in this instance one of the participants has a newborn baby and couldn’t have joined if it hadn’t been a virtual event. Without much planning at all, we managed to get speakers from Stockholm, Colorado, New York and New Jersey.

Q: What was particularly challenging?

A: One thing I find tricky with these online events is the breaks. It is hard to find a good substitute for coffee breaks where people can mingle organically. Online meetings just are different in this respect. Perhaps there is a good substitute – but I just haven’t figured out what. One possibility is the use of breakout rooms, which allows smaller groups of people to meet virtually during breaks, and then later rejoin the general meeting. This is supposed to simulate a situation in which people meet live at a conference and then break off into smaller groups to chat. However, this feature is not available on every platform (for example, it is available on Zoom but not on Pexip). Also, it doesn’t feel very natural. And people may want to do other things during the break like walk around, prepare food, etc. At a live conference, they could do all of these things while chatting with people, but such multitasking is harder to pull off in a virtual workshop.   

Q: What are some ways that you think virtual workshops can be improved?

A: We didn’t really fail in any of these respects, but I do think it is very important when organizing these events to test-run the technology so that the organizer is familiar with it, and to also schedule the talks so that there’s a little break between every talk. One never knows when technical problems pop up and it’s important to have time to fix them.

Q: Do you think it would be good to have more virtual workshops in the future? Do you anticipate having more of them in the future?

A: I think so. These times are of course very peculiar, and hopefully we can all meet up soon, but even when things are back to normal, I think virtual workshops can be an alternative for certain kinds of workshops. They require less planning and are in some ways more informal. So yeah, I think we might actually do more of these even when the Covid-19 crisis is over.