• Loren

The Coronavirus and Rethinking Professional Norms

The future of handshakes, telecommuting, and virtual conferences


Did you ever hear the saying or see a product with the phrase “I survived another meeting that could have been an email”? With the rise in concern over public health safety because of the coronavirus, businesses have started to embrace trends that have been slowly rising over the years. While evaluation and testing to learn more about the spread of the virus was happening, companies and governments started to call for telecommuting and to avoid hand-to-hand contact if in-person meetings must continue.

In the past, tech companies led the charge to embrace telecommuting because they were experimenting with and developing solutions that could enable better communication and processes for collaborating in remote offices.


IBM was a pioneer in remote work, encouraging it when it was not as well-adopted as it is today. A few years ago, with leadership changes, the company that saw profit gains and favorable public relations for its remote mentality, decided to bring people back into the office.


While IBM changed course for their blueprint, other companies began to offer remote openings especially in fields of tech where developers spend more time on their computers than in meeting rooms. Hiring sites such as Flexjobs and remote.co came about to connect quality workers with established companies looking for the right fit regardless of geographic location.


With news of the coronavirus spreading in the United States, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Twitter have strongly encouraged working from home. Washington state had multiple deaths that occurred from the coronavirus and also is the headquarters for Microsoft and Amazon. Amazon called for all non-essential travel to be halted. They pulled out of conferences they were attending and usually have a strong presence — including South by Southwest (SXSW) and Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). These calls came after the company had an employee test positive for COVID-19.


Since I work in marketing and have had clients in healthcare and tech, I’m pretty familiar with SXSW and HIMSS. SXSW is held in Austin and HIMSS this cycle is in Orlando. Florida is currently under a state-of-emergency. Texas has confirmed cases of COVID-19. Knowing that HIMSS attracts both healthcare, pharmaceutical, and technology companies, I wondered how they would respond to the coronavirus and if they would postpone or cancel their conference as Microsoft did in a state that is also under a current state-of-emergency.


Even though major players publicly announced they would not be attending HIMSS now, the senior comms director said via Twitter that “HIMSS 20 is a go.” The conference put together a list of onsite and travel precautions and tips for attending including that it will be a handshake-free environment (they are recommending the HIMSS elbow tap). They’ve linked to the CDC and Florida Department of Health where attendees can gather more information. But the PR team is facing pushback and threats from people who are angered by the conference encouraging people to attend knowing they will go back to their states and even healthcare systems. The PR response?



In true PR fashion, Groppe is direct, open, and honest. This is only one of the multiple tweets in a thread about the threats she received for doing her job. PR 101 teaches you to stay on message and work well in a crisis and under pressure. Aside from sharing these personal stories, Groppe posts about how to properly report on the coronavirus and how to stick to the facts and not on the hype and hysteria. A few days later, HIMSS canceled their show, three days before it would kick-off. (I actually published this post on Wednesday night when things were "a go" and by Thursday it was a no go).


Over at SXSW, things are a bit calmer — maybe it’s the Texas swagger. Health officials say that canceling SXSW won’t make Austin any safer from the coronavirus. They have, like HIMSS, put together a list of precautions and health tips for travel and attending. They have a rapid response team in place and are monitoring the situation each day. Even with the precautions, Amazon, Facebook, Mashable, Netflix, TikTok, and Apple have decided not to be a presence.


If PR at HIMSS is direct and pointed, marketing and messaging in Round Rock is targeted to its audience. They’re serious but in a way that is relatable to their constituents. How to communicate health tips to the public for the win right here.


While two well-known events are rethinking their plans and major companies are pulling back attendance, it makes me wonder if virtual conferences will see a bump? Many conferences and events are starting to offer an online ticket as an additional revenue stream. The initial thought is that some people and companies aren’t willing to spend thousands of dollars on a conference (and that’s just for the conference, thousands more are needed for travel and lodging). Those expenses add up if you want to send multiple people. Online tickets allow for hearing from speakers and receiving any notes or packets given, and some tickets even include a virtual networking event since networking is one of the biggest reasons to attend.


Social Media Marketing World just wrapped up its national conference and they offered a virtual ticket although attendees still arrived in person and shook hands. Adobe, Google, and Microsoft all moved their major conferences online for 2020.



While these companies are reacting to a public health situation, some companies have been at the forefront of moving conferences online and promoting remote work. The Remote Work Summit in April is the largest online conference that is free to attend live sessions. For an upgrade, you can have access to sessions whenever and includes bonus materials. The purpose of this conference is to help remote workers learn about the industry, remote leaders learn how to manage these teams, and remote companies learn how to scale in this developing landscape.


Flexjobs recently shared the projections and stats for remote work in 2020. Some of the highlights include:


  • 80% of US workers said they would turn down a job that didn’t include flexible work options

  • 90% of employees said flexible arrangements boost morale80% of remote workers said they have less job stress

  • 65% of respondents said they are more productive in a home office

  • 50% of remote workers say they used less sick days


The last bullet point correlates to what is happening with the coronavirus. The assumption is that being exposed to fewer people every day who might have a cold or flu decreases the chances that you’ll have to call in sick, too. The other points speak to a work culture that is shifting to be more concerned with creating value instead of punching a timesheet during certain hours.


Certainly more industries and jobs are more likely to be able to work from home. Developers, for example, would spend more time on their computer creating code than they would in a conference room attending meeting after meeting. Writers might be in the same boat. Could longer meetings happen online? Could we utilize apps like Slack to message questions and collaborate? Many companies, particularly tech startups are already testing this out at least on a part-time basis if they are not fully remote.


Building trust is probably one of the most common pushbacks of working remotely. Generally speaking, an employee would earn trust and be able to work remotely during certain times after they’ve proven a strong work ethic. But if you’re a writer or developer, and no product or message is shown, I think a manager would know pretty quickly how efficient you are working remotely.


If large companies are now encouraging and trusting employees to work remotely during a public health situation, maybe they could provide a positive case study for the future of remote. The same could be said for these conferences that have chosen a virtual route. There is a benefit to meeting with people in-person and these events should occur, but does a daily commute really create a ton of value? What would happen if you could hire talent based on skills and not confined to your geographic region?


It shouldn’t take a virus outbreak to encourage remote work and virtual conferences.


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