It has been a year and a half since it was a regular occurrence to go to a conference in person and interact with humans. This pandemic has made many of us feel like we have not interacted with humans for far longer than that! Do you remember how? What are the new rules of engagement?
Check the conference rules before you go.
Many conferences are requiring you to report if you have been vaccinated or not. Many conferences are asking you to tell them how comfortable you are with direct interaction. Most conferences are requiring masks regardless of if you are vaccinated or not. The rules are partially for participant protection and partially for easing the anxiety of others. For the conferences that do not require vaccines, there may be people in attendance that are high risk. And they have no way to know if you are vaccinated or not, so please respect their sanity and follow the masking rules. Think of it this way – if you are at a networking event and there is someone in a wheelchair, would you purposefully put obstacles in their way so they could not come talk to you? No. You would likely go out of your way to clear a path to accommodate them. Not wearing a mask in these situations is creating a barrier to networking. Now, if you ask someone you are sitting down with if they are comfortable with removing masks, and they are, go for it! I am a big fan of giving everyone equal opportunity at connection and not limiting a population by purposefully doing something that would make them uncomfortable or avoid me.
Handshakes are coming back, slowly. Hugs are still awkward.
Everyone is awkward right now – accept it. When you meet someone, it is a natural inclination in our culture to reach out and shake their hand. Well, for the last year no one has wanted to touch anyone else. We have had the elbow bumps, the high fives, and a little bit a resurgence of the fist bump. This, again, is based on comfort level. An easy way to handle this is asking. “May I give you a hug?” “It’s nice to meet you, may I shake your hand?” It might feel a little awkward at first, but it is better than putting your hand out and making someone else hesitate with their lack of comfort. If you see me, you can hug me! I have heard that some conferences are doing a red dot, yellow dot, green dot system. The red dot means “don’t touch me and stand back.” The yellow dot means “I am happy to interact, but I don’t want to touch you and please wear a mask.” While the green dot means “hug me, talk to me, unmask, or whatever.” Other conferences are planning to give out little ribbons to attach to your badge that indicates what your comfort level is. The big thing is to be respectful of what others are comfortable with.
Take advantage of the human interaction.
People are supposed to be with other people. Being isolated has caused a significant increase in mental health issues. While we used to go to conferences for CPE and attending sessions to absorb as much knowledge as possible, I believe we will see more emphasis on the social side of the conferences. The networking has always been important; however, we all have a tendency to step out and take calls or go back to our rooms and finish up some projects while skipping the happy hour. Plan to not have to accomplish technical work at conferences. Plan to not take calls in between sessions. Do not over commit your time and be present at the conference. Plan on attending the happy hours. Plan on making meaningful connections with the other attendees.
Define your own comfort level before going.
There will be maybe situations where someone says “Hey, come along.” However, you might hesitate and then agree because peer pressure is real. Before you attend a conference in person, think through where your boundaries are. What are you comfortable with? What is a hard line for you not to cross? Resolve these items in your mind so you can say yes and no with confidence and not be uncomfortable personally.
Schedule meetups in advance.
Are there certain people that you really want to connect with at the event? Schedule a walking break with them outside. Or schedule a coffee meetup before the conference starts. Be strategic with your time and ensure that you are finding ways to connect one on one with the people that matter the most to you. Everyone will have different comfort levels and the people that used to be the life of the party, might not be showing up for big events. It would be sad if you did not get the time to connect with them because you did not ask in advance and just expected everyone to be there and show up to events like normal.
The delta variant is real and bringing an influx of cases this summer in the non-vaccinated and unable to be vaccinated communities. There will still be hesitation from the massively traumatic events that we have all lived through whether or not it is warranted in your opinion. Remember, we are all human. We should be respectful to our fellow professionals and be strategic with our limited time at in-person events. I hope these tips help you prepare!