There’s something about meeting face-to-face that is different from doing it online. Staring into a camera just isn’t like being in a room with people.

Both of these are statements I’ve heard lots over the last few months. It’s true. Somehow the perks of the home office have started to grate and the walls have closed in. The monotony of the appropriately coloured blue glow that is your magic window the world has turned from a light at the end of a tunnel to a warning beacon that tells you that somewhere, out in the Matrix, there are other real people feeling the same as you.

But then CommsHero online happened. Now, I’m not going to pretend that orgasniser Asif Chowdry is actually the single saviour for all those stuck in home offices (though rumours persist) nor am I going to say that, in terms of tangible learning outcomes it was the most productive conference I’ve been to, but what it did prove to me is that the problem is not the LEDs and slow fan whirs that have become my daily space, it’s the presentation of content. It’s not the situation, it’s what we do with it.

For those unfamiliar with CommsHero, it’s a communication conference with a twist. Building on the strengths of unconferences, world cafes and all the buzzwords of the late 10s, it provides top notch speakers amid an atmosphere of fun. Face to face that has meant, for example, Apprentice celebs, copious amounts of donuts or, when Greggs social media team came to speak, vegan sausage rolls. So, when the pandemic put the conference in hiatus, it was written off by many. After all, those of us who have been doing online conferences for years, know how much of a struggle they can be. But, of course, while the people at organising organisation Resource don’t wear capes, they certainly wore thinking caps.

CommsHero 2020 took place over a week instead of a day. It used a platform called Airmeet, which allowed not only the familiar webinar experience, but also options between sessions of meeting in small groups. The built in use of emojis in sessions, along with a very functional Q+A and chat module, the ability to DM attendees between sessions, proper social-media style delegate and speaker profiles, the agenda available and dynamic along the side of the sessions backed up with the Twitterbuzz that’s been its trademark for years meant that, suddenly, I wasn’t just listening to energizing content; I was meeting new people, old friends and important contacts too. I was popping into the sessions I could, sometimes late as I had other meetings, and scheduled my week around it – it didn’t get in the way, it added value to my workload. Rather than pottering upstairs to a lonely kettle to stare at the world through a window, I could enrich my breaks with new ideas.

As always at CommsHero the real magic isn’t the depth of the content (though make no mistake, there are some real gold nuggets and top-level speakers within it) it’s the sheer energy of the event. By using a combination of clever marketing, great contacts, an excellent platform and real creativity, Resource had pulled it out the bag. Not only that, but they had added to it. Rather than spending the breaks in a corner with my colleagues talking about the coffee, I’d actually gone out and networked, without the awkward “ooh am I interrupting” moment you get at traditional conferences.

Yes. The more I thought about it, the more I realised. Actually, this CommsHero had worked BETTER for me than the face-to-face one. Actually, the pale white walls of my home office are close to the same colour as the walls in our main office. Had I not had monotonous days in the office too, with people coming and asking questions all the time, with distracting noises and wished I’d been at home? Actually, I realised, the old adage I used to use when talking about agile and digital education was true. It’s not the content, nor the technology, it’s what you do with it.

Over the weekend, this adage became even more relevant. My daughter’s homework is all online now, for Covid reasons. For some, this means a crafted platform of engaging videos, for others PDF worksheets you have print, complete, scan and email back. They can contact all of their teachers on Teams 24/7 to ask them questions, but the teachers are so busy they often don’t reply. Despite Teams being at their disposal, despite them using worksheets with proven learning value, the package is not yet there. What could reach more, is reaching less.

Later in the weekend I also caught up with The Green Party conference speech. Most of the party leaders have used the pandemic to deliver speeches from a single camera focused on a podium. As a confirmed politics geek, I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled to get through them. Even someone with as much energy as Boris Johnson becomes blander when on a single backdrop pulpit. Bartley and Berry took TED Talks as an inspiration and used multiple cameras and digital backdrop to deliver theirs; it watched better, in engaged better. Really, the content was just another political speech. But the difference was how it had been purposed. The lack of an audience means edits, notes, autocues can be more strategically placed. There’s MORE room to move around, MORE places to stick the energy in. The same content delivered from a podium in a hall could work; but if you’re not on a hall but in a livestream, deliver differently.

Yes, the reality is not that our mental health is suffering because we are stuck away from people. In some ways we are more connected than ever. It’s not because we spend it one room, because we spend that much time on our own in a car commuting. The commuting time can now be spent chatting to colleagues online and calling them just for a chat. You can do that. It is productive and it is allowed.

Since March, the content hasn’t changed, only the context. If we try and deliver that context in a pre-pandemic way, we are doomed to failure. We don’t need a new normal that’s the old normal in a more irritating way. If we deliver the same content, to the same audience using a different platform creatively and properly, we can find we’re in a better place.

After all, as Nolan’s Batman said: “It’s not who I am underneath, it’s what I DO that defines me.”

Now there was a comms hero who did where a cape.

Kevin Campbell-Wright

External Affairs & Digital Learning Lead, Community trustee and primary governor