By Jane Larsson
While planning our global team meeting, we asked ourselves, 'Is this the right time to bring people together from around the world? Is it responsible to ask people to travel? What about the environmental impact?'
Earlier this month, the CIS Global Team gathered in person in Leiden for the first time since 2019. Our global team includes people who work in the Netherlands (39 of us this year) and another 18 colleagues who work from their homes worldwide.
Before the pandemic, one of our strategies had always been to bring our international colleagues to Leiden at least twice a year to address operational challenges, strategize and build plans, envision the impact we can make to support members, and build relationships.
Many colleagues had been yearning to reunite. Several people share the same role, independently working to guide and support schools and universities in different countries around the world. Despite their distance from us and one another, their bond has always been strong due to common responsibilities.
Those weeks of coming together in person were always eagerly anticipated, a time of year to reconnect, reminisce, welcome new colleagues and compare experiences.
There are so many stories to tell! And an annual social activity always gave us the chance to kick back and relax.
Each year since the pandemic began, we asked ourselves:
Is this the right time to bring people together from around the world?
Is it responsible to ask people to travel?
What about the environmental impact?
So, we decided it was the right time. We had a window of opportunity and we took advantage of it.
How did it go?
We began by paying attention to the experiences of others at earlier conferences where several people came down with Covid and were unable to return to their home countries when planned.
We decided to ask everyone (we can't require this legally) to self-test 72 and 48 hours before getting on a plane to travel and then each day before coming to our office.
We crossed our fingers and hoped against hope that we would avoid someone flying across the world and then being stuck in their hotel room for a week while nearby, we met and socialized.
We were fortunate. Three people had symptoms or tested positive the week before the meeting. Happily, two recovered in time and were able to attend but one person did end up staying in their hotel room after traveling so far.
A new dynamic … filling in the gaps
Twenty-one people joined the organization virtually during the pandemic.
They had never met. This presented a new dynamic.
While we have a fairly rigorous virtual meeting schedule, when it comes to forming relationships, it just wasn’t the same.
Beyond the challenge this presented for new colleagues, none of us were seeing each other in person as often as we used to.
Our ability to see and understand each other, our responsibilities, strengths, and challenges became obstructed.
Quite naturally, we began to fill in these gaps with our own assumptions about each other, creating our own versions of reality.
Realizing that building and rebuilding connections were our most important objectives, the meeting design included intentional exercises to remedy the gaps, devoting our first hours together to sharing stories of our work.
What did we learn about ourselves during the pandemic?
How did we each change?
What new habits or realizations emerged?
We immediately noticed a depth of emotion for those who reunited for the first time in three years.
We met each other with hugs that were long. The joy and the wonder of homecoming were noticable.
Our new colleagues witnessed these reunions and alliances for the first time, wondering, ‘Where do I fit in and how will I belong?’
The joy of shared experiences. Spontaneous reactions. Moments of personal initiative, approach, and care. Moments of retreat. Each observation led to an understanding and broader vision of how we work individually and together.
Was it worth it?
The answer is a definite yes. In the words of colleagues:
What an inspiring and rewarding week… it is amazing to be part of this very motivated, collaborative, and professional team.
I feel like a different person having at last connected with such an amazing group of people.
It was amazing to be a part of such intense reflection, discussion and forward thinking and, of course, really wonderful to meet all my colleagues in person.
By the end of the week, our new colleagues had this to say:
Now, I feel part of this incredible team.
Our time together helped me to connect all the dots.
I can see now what CIS really is.
At CIS, we continue to carefully consider how and when to travel for work as we realize the impact this has on the environment.
We continue to make changes to our events and activities to reduce our travel … but gathering our global team together in person was not something we could give up during this time of significant change.
As you consider the environment, the cost and time required to bring international teams or colleagues together to meet or to conference, I hope this has been a useful read.
If like me, you are responsible for the preparation, investment and well-being and livelihood of colleagues, I can confidently say: It was worth it.