Why coffee breaks are important

Art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once held a conference by stripping it down to only the coffee break, but in virtual conferences these casual interactions were the first to go.

I’m attending two virtual conferences this month. Even though these meetings are COVID-safe, eco-friendly, affordable and accessible to people who can’t travel, I’m kind of over them. I’m by no means opposed to virtual meetings. In fact, at both conferences I’m talking about “virtual coworking” for science writers. But there’s always something missing from these virtual events: coffee breaks.

About a decade ago I used to organise science-themed unconferences. These were in-person meetings with no set agenda, where participants would come up with ideas on the spot. Whenever I would tell people about these events, I also mentioned this anecdote that so perfectly encapsulates why unconferences work: 

In the mid-nineties, art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist organised a meeting for artists and scientists. But hours before the conference was due to start they decided to cancel the programme and only have the “non-conference” part of the meeting: hotels, meals, coffee breaks, a venue, transportation. The meeting was a success. As Obrist puts it: “This came from that observation that obviously at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break.” (emphasis mine)

It’s a quote I often reference when talking about organising science unconferences or setting up any type of community. And it also explains what I miss about in-person meetings. Virtual coworking sessions have a lot of breaks and small groups built into the process so that we can at least regain some of that, but large virtual conferences are usually exactly that part of the conference that Obrist got rid of: the talks itself. Everything else, everything valuable, is missing -- and I miss it. 

(Topic inspired by a Twitter conversation)

What do you think about virtual meetings? Do you love them for how accessible they are or do you also miss coffee breaks and other “in between” moments? 

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