Musings on In-person Conferences

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Covid times are hard. Not only have we all been hidden away in our homes for over a year – we have missed out on the interactions that come with conferences. As we see symposiums start to reemerge in-person, we have an opportunity to maximize our connections. I believe we will see more people savoring the in-person relations than previously. I am predicting accountants’ livers in general will be hurting for 12-18 months post lockdown blues (but hey, that’s just my opinion).

We took face-to-face conversations for granted before. This year on zoom has proven that we, as humans, do not get as much out of online interactions. Check out this old (yes, it’s like 12 years old) study by Forbes Insights on the benefits of in-person networking. Since Covid, there have been a ton of surveys and studies that were researching everything from zoom fatigue to if phone calls actually work better. We learned a lot about the bias of survey-based research on people that are tired of being isolated and working from home as well. However, the research has been around for a while – staring at a computer screen and talking to people takes a whole lot less energy (only 10% of it) and also does not yield the same communication results that face-to-face conversations do. We as a society are finally respecting the natural state of in-person meetings. No one needed the intense amount of research being done to tell us that we, as humans, do better in life and business when we are physically close to other humans.

In reflecting on my prior conference behavior, I’m regretting a lot of my decisions and savoring other decisions. Last year, the first week of March 2020, I went to a conference in Orlando, Florida. The sessions were alright, but nothing new for me. So, I decided to play hooky one day. I had breakfast with an amazing firm owner friend that lives there and chatted about our visions for the profession. I proceeded to go to Disney World with a few other colleagues and we spent the day enjoying the fun rides and debating and learning from each other. In the moment, I felt guilty. In the moment, I chastised myself for not going to more sessions. In the moment, I was thinking about the 5,000 other tasks I could have done on my computer that day by myself. In retrospect, that was the best decision I made all year. In retrospect, I made more connections and learned more from that one day. In retrospect, I took a moment to be away from screens and normality for something different where I leveraged the benefits of human interactions. In retrospect, I would not have gotten nearly as much out of the sessions as I did out of that one day of hooky.

I am also reflecting on the lost opportunities to network. At conferences, I frequently have so much to do that I skip the coffee meetups, I skip the parties (well, some of them), I skip the early morning yoga, and I skip everything but the core reason I showed up. My behavior is definitely changing for the future. These little pieces of the conference experience, while previously seemingly pointless, are where we get to make the profession better! These are the small opportunities we had regularly to connect with our fellow humans and collaborate and ideate on how to make everything better. I am realigning the point of conferences in my own head. No longer will I see them as the place I get CPE and learn new skills – yes it will always be that, too – but the bigger picture is that conferences are where the energy is. Conferences are where we have the opportunity to meet new people and learn more from them, face-to-face. Conferences are where we can truly connect.

While I do not encourage binge drinking until your liver fails you quickly, I do encourage finding the moments to connect with others face-to-face. Get a vaccine, show up – I mean really show up. Don’t beg off early because you feel guilty about the undone work (there will always be undone work tomorrow). Don’t skip the coffee chat time to take conference calls. Be present. Be mindful. And be engaged.

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Liz Mason is a serial entrepreneur, a giant nerd, and an involved accounting vanguard. She is the Founder of High Rock Accounting, Rebel Rock Accounting, TheDepartment.Tax, and a few other related brands. Liz speaks on a national stage, guests stars on podcasts, publishes a YouTube show (The Hot Accounts), and writes frequently. To further her passion for the advancement of the accounting profession, Liz currently serves as a Xero National Ambassador and as the Content Strategist for Tax Practice News. Liz started her career in tax at Grant Thornton (at 20) and automated a portion of her job landing her in the national tax practice. She spent a decade in large public accounting firms working on highly technical tax consulting before branching off on her own. Liz utilizes her creativity and passion at her company to uproot traditional practices and replace them with innovative concepts. She finds joy in efficient technology and her core belief is that everyone and everything can continuously improve (she says "be better" too often). When Liz isn't planning world domination in accounting, she is a die-hard skier, down for any adventure, plays the ukulele, reads everything, and has a good sense of humor. If you're looking for her, you can find her traveling the world and enjoying new food and cultures with her husband and young son. Follow Liz and High Rock Accounting on Twitter at @LizzyNorMa and @HighRockCPAs.