Woman working with laptopn and phone

Stop Searching for Absolutes. The Future Belongs to Nuance.

As we look to emerge from the pandemic, we’re seeing the inevitable urge to make sense out of the many seismic changes wrought by COVID. This is manifesting in competing narratives playing out in conversations on Zoom calls, on social media, among thought leaders, and others. We yearn for a unified theory to explain how all this disruption will play out and provide a roadmap forward.

One of the more popular arguments right now is about the future of work, specifically where, when, and how we will all be doing our jobs. Two distinct camps are forming:

  • The Remote Camp: Bosses have seen how productive we can be working remotely, from wherever we want, with flexible schedules. We will never return to the office full time

    This is getting the most traction in tech companies, as exemplified by Salesforce’s “Work From Anywhere” announcement in February that all employees can choose to continue to work from home. 
  • The In-Office Camp: Bosses have seen how much we need in-office collaboration and camaraderie. Sure, a handful of companies will do the remote thing, but the vast majority of us will be back working in offices, like before.

    This mentality, more common in finance and other professional services, can be seen in Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon’s recent call for everyone to return to the office. “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us,” he said. “And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” It’s worth noting that Solomon is not your father’s investment banker; he’s long had a side hustle as a popular techno DJ, going by the name D-Sol, whose Instagram handle has 40,000 followers. If a hipster CEO is saying work from home is an aberration, that’s something.

In the event industry, the debate is about whether meetings, conferences, trade shows, and other gatherings will take place in person or virtually, and whether hybrid will remain a viable long-term option or is merely a transition model until COVID is finally licked. Here, again, two views are battling for control of the narrative:

  • The In-Person Camp: Nothing will ever replace the benefits of meeting face to face. Virtual may be nice once in a while, but people are yearning for the benefits of in-person events: the serendipitous meetings in the lobby, the buzz of the show floor, the relationship-building over cocktails, and more. 

    The biggest advocates of this view are, no surprise, the people whose livelihoods depend on in-person events: destinations, venues, incentive planners, exhibitors, and event contractors who supply all the stuff that gets loaded in and set up. 
  • The Virtual Camp: Wake up, people! The toothpaste ain’t going back in the tube. Virtual showed us how much more efficient we can be when we don’t have to travel to and from an event. We can reach more people, get better speakers, and analyze more data. And, P.S., I kind of like being able to see my kids more, do yoga in the middle of the day, and work in my sweatpants.

    This view is espoused by hitherto road-warrior event profs who are in no rush to go back to living in airports and hotels, the exploding ecosystem of virtual tech companies, planners of training and content-driven events, and other constituencies who do not rely on exhibitor revenue.

In both arguments, the search for a singular truth will be in vain, because, like the philosophy of relativism posits, there are no absolute truths. In the work-from-home vs. in-office debate, companies will develop policies that they feel works best for them, based on the kind of work they do, the kind of culture they have, their particular industry, the preferences of the employees they’re looking to retain, and other factors. 

Workers, in turn, will choose employers based on similar factors, including where they want to live and what kind of lifestyle they want to have. I’ve spoken to several employers who say they have planners on their teams who moved to more affordable locations during the pandemic and are comfortable producing virtual-only events as the price to pay for work-life balance.

Rarely does a one-size-fits-all solution succeed in work situations like these. We all know companies that tried to shed their conservative images by installing ping-pong tables and couches and shifting to open-floorplan offices, all in the hopes of attracting and retaining employees. Those efforts are usually misguided, and often backfire. A law firm, or an in-house law department, for example, is not an ideal place for an open office; lawyers need privacy for confidential client conversations. What may work for a creative business doesn’t always translate across industries.

Likewise, the future of events will not follow a rigid path. An organization’s products will be one determining factor. Events that feature physical products, like car shows, achieve their goals far better with in-person experiences, where consumers can sit in the latest models, smell the leather, and play with the electronics. No such visceral feelings arise with insurance products, on the other hand, so those industries may choose to stick with virtual events.

Event goals will be another factor. No gift card or digital experience can match the motivational impact of an exotic trip with an elite group of salespeople when it comes to incentive programs. On the other hand, if the main thrust of an event is content, like continuing education credits for certified professionals, virtual is far more efficient.

It’s not easy operating under a banner of uncertainty, but that’s how things will be for the foreseeable future. We’re not talking about physical products; this is not an example of whether VHS will win out over Betamax for video recording supremacy. When we talk about the work-from-home debate, or the in-person vs. virtual event argument, we’re dealing with human behavior, and that, by nature, is as varied as people are. We’re looking at multiple futures playing out here, not a singular narrative.

The best approach in this new world, when it comes to events, is going to involve numerous scenarios, based on the same factors we’ve always—or should have always—started with: the Why (goals) and the Who (target audience). Those inputs should still be the primary drivers of what kind of event we design and how we deliver it. The basic formula, after all, hasn’t changed:  


We may have more options now when it comes to what/when/how/where, but ultimately the decision of whether to go virtual or in-person is not that different than choosing a room setup option that best serves the purpose of the event. Granted, the process is more complex now, but that should be embraced as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

For more thought-provoking insights on event business, strategy, and design, save the date for our upcoming 2021 half-day virtual Summit. Register your interest to stay up-to-date with speaker and agenda announcements.