Bringing distributed teams together with an internal conference

We’ve been working remotely in Co-op Digital Technology and Data since March 2020. Since then we’ve seen new teams form, departments merge and new people have joined us. We’ve also been figuring out how to navigate a new world of hybrid working. Lots of things are working well, but colleagues were feeding back that they missed the serendipitous conversations in the kitchen and the opportunities to stumble upon other teams and see what they are working on.

An experiment to help us learn

Lots of people were on board with the idea of running an internal conference in principle, but as we got into the details we started to come across stumbling blocks. Would we run the event in person, virtually or hybrid? How would colleagues feel about gathering in large groups after spending years working remotely? How many colleagues would want to give a talk? How much would it cost? An expensive conference felt risky, so we decided to apply our mindset of experimentation.

Could we create a ‘lean’, low-budget conference to mitigate the risks and learn how to bring distributed teams together in a post-pandemic world?

Choosing the right location

There are lots expensive ways to do a fancy conference, involving lots of time and planning. But we were trying to mitigate risk, so we gave ourselves lots of limitations. We decided to run the conference on as close to zero a budget as possible, and to do it before the end of the year.

We used our office, 1 Angel Square as the location. It’s a stunning building and felt like a ‘home from home’ after years of working remotely. However, it didn’t have a big enough space to host everyone at the same time – so we split the conference across 3 days. This meant that we didn’t need such large spaces and it also allowed colleagues to join on the days which fitted with their schedules, which might involve childcare or different working patterns.

We also got creative and repurposed areas in the building like the Foodology hub, where our team designs and tests new Co-op products. We opened floors we no longer use and turned them into temporary auditoriums with big screens.

A conference talk taking place on the 13th floor of Co-op’s HQ

Making it inclusive and accessible

Coming into the office in person in a large group wasn’t for everyone. Whether it was due to other commitments, living far away or not feeling comfortable to sit in a large room full of people, we still wanted everyone to feel included.

We weren’t able to make all of our sessions hybrid, but where we could we streamed the sessions and held virtual breakout rooms in place of in-person activities. For those who couldn’t attend on the day we recorded these sessions. We trialled using live captions to help colleagues with hearing difficulties so they could participate more fully.

Designing a thoughtful schedule

Since we were running the conference as an experiment, we wanted to be careful about making good use of our colleagues’ time. While we might not have to spend money on a venue, asking our whole department to take time out is quite an investment, so it was vital to make sure it was worthwhile.

In the morning we had our All Hands, which was repeated on each day. This was time for colleagues to reconnect with each other and with the Co-op purpose. The sessions were designed to feel useful and give our colleagues a chance to greet old friends and make new connections. They were also interactive to get the most of being face to face.

People taking part in the all hands session in the Co-op auditorium

In the afternoon our colleagues led talks and workshops. It was like being at a TEDx event, with talks on a variety of topics from reflective practice to risk-storming the Deathstar. Leaders encouraged people to clear their diaries and make space, but we also streamed and recorded the sessions where we could so that everyone had a chance to join.

Marianne Knowles from the content design team giving a talk in the Co-op auditorium

What we learned from our conference experiment

Running a multi-track, 3-day event across multiple floors of large building wasn’t easy. A team of helpers, connected through an open chat channel, kept everything running smoothly. Each conference space had an assigned helper to check the tech worked so that speakers could feel calm and prepared before going on stage.

Throughout the conference we captured feedback using QR codes scanned on phones for quick in the moment praise, thoughts and improvements. We held lots of retrospective afterwards – one for the organisers and one for the speakers and helpers.

Our feedback told us:

  • the structure of the conference (schedule, timings and venue) worked really well
  • colleagues would like more sessions to learn about what other teams and disciplines do
  • sometimes we had too many sessions at once – so we’ll look to have fewer sessions running in parallel and we’ll consider having tracks or themes.
  • the next one should still be in person, but to have more live streamed and recorded sessions
  • everyone would love to have another conference – at least once a year but ideally twice

We’re collating this into a book of lessons to remember and experiments we’d love to try next time.

Michaela Kurkiewicz
Strategy and Planning Lead