8 steps to hold safe face-to-face business meetings

by Editorial Team
9 minutes read

Since the onset of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the end of last year, many business events including in-person meetings of less than 50 like board meetings people have ground to a halt as the pandemic continued to claim swathes of global territory. Some have resorted to virtual meetings using platforms such as Zoom but this is not without its challenges such as bombing by hackers.

This leaves some business people with no option except to go back to the old in-person mode of meetings especially given the relaxation of some lockdown regulations by some countries as they attempt to walk the tight rope of striking a balance between reducing the spread of the disease by limit the movement of people and ensuring continued economic activity. Where such meetings are permitted, businesses can take advantage of them to meet and move their enterprises forward. Even business events organisers can similarly benefit provided they do so safely.

It should be noted that the partial relaxation of lockdown regulations does not mean that the pandemic is over. Organisers of such events should ensure that such meetings are safe by taking a number of precautions which include the following:

  • Securing the permission to travel to the meeting venue

Company meetings are usually held in boardrooms while meetings by other types of business are held at different venues. This means that attendees have to travel to the meeting venues. In some countries, movement restrictions remain in place and any travel within the country still requires written permission from authorities or documentation from one’s employer justifying movement from one point to another.

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This means that the convenor of in-person meetings during the COVID-19 era needs to ensure that would-be attendees have the necessary documentation to justify travelling to attend the events. In Zimbabwe being employed in sectors which were exempted from closing such as manufacturing is enough justification to travel within the country but one has to have a document vouching that the bearer is indeed an employee of a given company. In view of this, organisers of face-to-face business meetings should arrange for such documents to facilitate smooth passage for attendees to the meeting venue.

  • Venue

The COVID-19 requirement for the observance of strict physical distance is very important in the holding of in-person business meetings. Organisers should select venues with space which is large enough to accommodate all their attendees seated at least two metres apart. Given that most governments still do not permit long-distance travel, apart from having sufficient space to allow for physical distancing, the venue should be close to most attendees’ city or town of residence. For example, in Zimbabwe events organised for the benefit of Harare residents and organisations are best held in that city and not the country’s business events capital, the resort town of Victoria Falls, which is 880 kilometres away by road. This also makes sense in that air travel is still not an option.

  • Use of face masks

The use of face masks has been the most common precaution for personal prevention of the spread of the virus between people, especially in public places. In fact, apart from the coronavirus image and icon, the mask has become the popular visual representation of the invisible deadly virus. Given this background, the use of masks is not an option in face-to-face business meetings.

Organisers need to ensure that every attendee has a mask and wears it correctly. Invitations messages should clearly spell the indispensability of masks and where possible these could be provided upon arrival. Depending on the nature of the business meeting, organisers could get a sponsor to provide branded masks in exchange for selling their brand.

Masks should be worn properly throughout the event if they are to be effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus among attendees during meetings.

  • Thermal scanning

High body temperature is the most commonly-referred-to symptom of COVID-19. Organisers should ensure that as each attendee’s temperature is checked as they enter the venue. They should be asked to disclose if they recently travelled or came into contact with a person who recently arrived from a COVID-19 hotspot country. Where answers are in the positive, such attendees could be asked not to attend. Issues of suspected exposure could be dealt with prior to the arrival of attendees by asking them to disclose their recent travel and suspected exposure to prevent the embarrassment of being asked to leave,

Checking attendees’ temperature requires appropriate tools such as a digital forehead thermometer. Experience in various spaces such as the retail industry has shown that a staff member is just picked and tasked with checking customers’ temperature without any prior briefing and training in the use of thermometers. This is brought to the fore when the gadgets give erroneous body temperature readings to the frustration and embarrassment of the staff member. Sometimes this is due to a faulty thermometer. Organisers need to ensure that nothing is left to chance when it comes to body temperature checks. They also need to have contact details of the national COVID-19 response teams which are located near the venue in case a hitherto asymptomatic attendee begins to manifest signs such as difficulties in breathing.

  • Cleaning and sanitation

Apart from preventative measures such as the wearing of masks, constant handwashing and high standards of hygiene are very important. This means regularly sanitising physical attendee touchpoints such as door handles and providing several sanitation stations and handwashing points throughout the venue especially in high traffic areas such as near toilets, feeding points and exhibition floors in the case of meetings which are held concurrently with some accompanying shows.

In addition to the foregoing measures organisers also need to have a shoe sole disinfecting mechanism such as having a piece of cloth dipped in disinfectant spread across the venue main door so that on stepping on it attendees disinfect their shoe soles. This ensures that nothing is left to chance in terms of cleanliness to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the event.

  • Ensuring food and beverage hygiene

One area through which a business event can become a conduit for COVID-19 spreading is the handling of food and drinks which are prepared for attendees. This presents a headache to organisers as events and food and drinks go hand in hand.

To go around this challenge organisers can ask confirmed attendees beforehand to mail in their food and beverage preferences so that a trusted supplier can prepare lunch packs which attendees can pick from a designated and sanitised feeding point instead of using traditional options such as a buffet. The feeding point should have handwashing points and sanitisers to ensure high levels of hygiene.

If there are queues, these should be monitored and a resource needs to be assigned to remind attendees to maintain the 2-metre physical distance requirement. It is advisable to factor the costs of food and beverages in the admission fee avoid attendees having to pull out their debit cards or cash to pay for their food. The cards and cash can be media for the transfer of the virus between attendees and cashiers and vice versa.

  • Enforcement

It is one thing to have in place measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and quite another to achieve the desired effect. The difference lies in enforcement. An event organiser can place several sanitiser bottles at the entrance to a room where attendees are registering but in the absence of enforcement at the end of the registration process it would not be surprising that they are all untouched. This emphasises the need for enforcement.

Organisers need several people to ensure enforcement at several points in the attendees’ event journey. Someone needs to constantly remind customers to wear masks correctly, wash or sanitise their hands and step onto the floor disinfectant and so on. Even as the event progresses, the meeting chair or facilitator can come in handy to constantly remind attendees on the need to maintain physical distance when they notice any deviations. Even as attendees are out of the event room and enjoying their meal a public address system can be employed to remind them to use the sanitation stations around them to constantly wash their hands. Mobile phone messages can also be used for the same cause.

Graphics could also be placed at high traffic areas such as food queuing points to reinforce the sanitation message.

  • Augmenting in-person with virtual

The under-50-people governments’ attendance stipulation can be limiting. To go around this challenge organisers could leverage the in-person events to increase attendee numbers beyond 50 people mark by coming up with hybrid events which would comprise face to face and virtual eventing. Virtual business events solutions enable organisers to get as many participants as possible without having to break their events into several editions of 50 people each.

While attractive in that hybrid events increase attendee numbers and revenue for organisers, augmenting face to face events with virtual components has its challenges in that organisers need to come up with virtual solutions which facilitate the mirroring of the physical goings-on live. This means that sessions such as breakout sessions, networking and others should be available to virtual participants live. The solution should enable virtual participants to take part in sessions as they progress instead of being mere spectators and listeners. They should be able to ask questions as speakers and presenters are presenting.

Most governments are opening up economies in a piecemeal fashion to enable them to continue managing the spread of the coronavirus while enabling their economies to slowly bounce back. Holding in-person events within the 50 people limit enables business events organisations and players to get used to the working within the restrictions and starting small and grow with the phased re-opening of economies.

This means that instead of waiting for the full opening up again of the business events industry, which is likely to take months, organisers can start operating safely with small numbers and make some money instead of folding arms and waiting. They can slowly grow under the new normal of safe events and hybrid events until crowds are allowed again.

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