How are hallway conversations and academic conferences recreated in the digital sphere?

  • With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Convocation Research + Design and Simply Secure conducted ethnographic and human centered design research to surface and analyze the needs of different academic communities in digital spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The report dives into three main categories: the Digital Nature of Events and Communities, the Positives of Digital Events, and the Frictions of Digital Events.
  • The 10 recommendations are grounded in community research, and aim to alleviate the burden and cognitive overload that attendees might be facing right now due to the pandemic.

Read the full report

In February 2021, Convocation Research + Design and Simply Secure were supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to conduct ethnographic and human centered design research to surface and analyze the needs of different academic communities in the context of digital events and spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The goal: To understand how hallway conversations and academic conferences are recreated in the digital sphere.

The study presented in this report explores the barriers, frictions, opportunities, and advantages of remote events. Seven virtual academic conferences were observed to assess new emerging norms, event organizers’ needs, attendees’ preferences, and the state of remote events and digital convenings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acknowledging Harm

Community-based research is designed to be responsive, but the spread and management of COVID-19 itself is not a constant or linear event; new variants emerge, cities shut down and reopen, and vaccination rollout is slower in some countries and areas than others. The COVID-19 pandemic mirrors the structural inequalities that existed before it, both online and offline. On top of these existing inequities, COVID-19 is generating new ones, with sexual harassment in the workplace, blurred work and home space boundaries, and emotional and physical labor falling more on people who self-identify as women and people of color.

Although burnout, COVID-19, and “Zoom fatigue” are real factors that impact communities and individuals, their effects and impact are difficult to measure. Our research goal was to see what barriers and opportunities are possible with remote convenings, but as researchers, we cannot separate COVID-19’s emotional and physical impacts on communities. More specifically, it’s difficult to understand general remote best practices in a COVID-19 mitigated future, because these best-practices cannot be decoupled or divorced from the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. If someone is experiencing burnout, no design or UX or UI improvement will fix the emotional labor that is living with COVID19.

Contextualizing the Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic

The study presents findings related to digital event design and the current state of community engagement within this space. Throughout the research, two conflicting themes emerged in regard to participation in remote events: remote events are much more accessible to attend, and at the same time, they often compete with external life circumstances.

Report Insights & Observations

The report outlines 16 major insights across 3 focus areas, and 10 recommendations. Insights include:

  • It’s Not Just Zoom Fatigue, It’s General Fatigue
  • Tacit Community Knowledge Is Not Easily Shared to Newcomers
  • Almost All the Events Had This Similar Problem: Time Zones are Difficult to Manage
  • Cameras On or Off Don’t Determine Engagement or Interest
  • Design Matters


Digital events require as much organization and curation as an offline event, but they bring new and specific challenges directly related to software and digital environments. The recommendations might seem a bit obvious at first, but they are all focused on streamlined communication, event support, understanding how tools and facilitation can help engagement and why structure for organizers and for attendees. These kinds of recommendations can help lower the burden and cognitive overload that attendees might be facing right now, especially this deep into the pandemic.

  • Create Clear and Concise Information Update for Users Over Email 
  • Event Planning, Programming and Moderation Matters
  • A Schedule and a Plan Matter for Engagement 
  • Scheduling Unstructured Time For Participants to Mingle 
  • Breaks Matter (and Are Needed!) 
  • The Tools Chosen for Events Matter…and So Does the Training You Offer
  • Not All Engagement Can Be Equally Measured 
  • There is No Hallway– But People Need the Ability to Create Their Own Spaces In Events
  • Switch Up Your Schedule to Accommodate for Time Zones
  • Nothing Can Replicate in Person

Looking Forward 

This report was written in November 2021, as the United States and other countries in North America and Europe are rolling out booster shots while facing new lockdown policies, a new variant has emerged on the global stage, and other countries across Africa and South America are still working toward administering their first vaccine shots, due to lack of access. It’s difficult at this moment to determine or predict what the future could hold. To support the academic community in the face of future unknowns, this research proposes a number of key points for digital and remote events in the coming months and years. 

The main highlight includes the fact that equity, accessibility, and responsibility need to be centered. What was gained during remote events should not be lost if events decide to go back to in-person or try a hybrid model. 

Read the full report


Researchers: Caroline Sinders, Kacie Harold, and Melina Garcia with support from Georgia Bullen, Melissa Huerta and Molly Wilson 

With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation