Despite its apparent simplicity, hosting a scientific conference and ensuring its success is a labor-intensive craft. A lot goes on backstage where supporting staff carefully tinker the right space and atmosphere for attendees to achieve their goals. To shed some light on this complex process, we interviewed Henriette Jensenius, the scientific manager of the Lorentz Center, a workshop center in Leiden, the Netherlands.
Created in 1995 by three scientists from Leiden University, the Lorentz Center has specialized over the past 25 years in hosting interactive international workshops in all academic fields. interactive international workshops in all academic fields. Multidisciplinary meetings are one of their specialties. Asking Henriette about the way the Lorentz Center positioned itself in relation to the process of scientific knowledge production, she insisted that the Center was not a place to validate knowledge. Unlike the traditional disciplinary conference where attendees display work in progress and/or their latest findings, Lorentz Center workshops are meant to foster exploratory work. As Henriette explained, the goal of the center is to propose workshop formats that spark new questions, open new research fields and establish relations between different disciplines or research groups.
For Henriette, bringing a group of researchers from different fields to engage together in exploratory work demands to strike the right atmosphere. Having organized and assisted hundreds of meetings, Henriette observed that this atmosphere lay somewhere between comfort and vulnerability. She explained that people should feel comfortable – i.e., “somewhere between being at home and the office” but not too much at ease so that they do not fall back on their old routines and familiar ways of thinking and doing (e.g., the classic conference format – paper/questions/informal chats during breaks).
To create this friendly yet discomforting atmosphere and bring attendees to adopt a risk-taking mindset, the facilities offered by the Lorentz Center play a key role. Henriette revealed that the organization of the Center has changed tremendously as she and her team searched for the right set-up. Over the years they abandoned the old lecture hall to create a modular space made up of a collection of interconnected rooms and corridors, separated just by glass walls. The ambiance is rather cozy as it looks quite casual, even messy inside. The point for Henriette was to avoid a corporate hotel-like vibe that one would usually find with convention centers, which she considered to be the worst environment for stimulating a sense of togetherness. Around the main meeting room, which is fully adjustable and equipped to stick stuff on the ground and on the walls), one finds dozens of tiny offices. These offices, she argued, play a crucial role too as they provide participants time to withdraw, rest, think and reflect on the work done. There is also no dinning/lunch room as food is catered in a buffet format. Again, this was done on purpose, as Henriette and her team noted that a buffet enabled more flow among participants and therefore greater exchanges. Similar social engineering informed the Lorentz Center’s choice to add activities outside the meeting room, such as dinners on board a boat on the lakes north of Leiden.
Besides, space, Henriette and her team also play an important role in creating the right atmosphere. She told us that, her team intervened before but also during the workshop to create and maintain a productive atmosphere. Through different exchange formats, such as fishbowl conversation, walk and talk techniques, or what she called Open Space Technology, Henriette and her team try to edge participants out of their comfort zone to break open hierarchical habits (old vs. young; eminent vs. junior) and encourage participants to show openness. The ensuing sense of uncertainty is crucial in her eyes as she observed that it helps people embrace vulnerability and share doubts and novel thoughts. On the other hand, she strives to balance out discomfort by maintaining a sense of togetherness and trust throughout the duration of the workshop. For Henriette, her job is to give attendees the feeling of being members of the same research institute for a week.
Interestingly, Henriette revealed that besides a PhD and a postdoc in biophysics astronomy, she had never received any training nor had any experience of conference organizing prior to her appointment at the Lorentz Center. While she acknowledged that her scientific background helped her understand the scientific needs of the conference attendees, she crafted the core of her expertise on the job, by doing and experimenting. The way she participates in setting up and running a workshop is very hands-on, organic and sense-based. She told us for instance that she usually monitors how a meeting is going from her office by sensing the general mood from the tone of speech and noise generated by the workshop attendees at work. She also learnt to identify the most productive days of a five-day meeting by observing the body language and, again, probing the mood and tonality of the group through hear and feel. Based on these organic impressions she helps the workshop leaders tweak the work schedule to maintain group cohesion and engagement.
In the course of this interview, it also became clear that congress organizers like Henriette are quite isolated and tend to work on their own. Henriette described how demanding it was to set up and run dozens of customized meetings per year and how it left her with very little time to step back and reflect on her practice. Let alone reach out to other conference centers and read about the practice of congressing. Strikingly, she was had not heard of the growing body of literature on the organization of online conferences prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to prepare and run workshops, the Lorentz Center first needs to collect workshop proposals. As Henriette pointed out, increasing the visibility and reputation of the Center within the scientific community is therefore particularly important. To this end, Henriette and her staff rely on a surprising technique. Indeed, as she revealed, they let conference attendees promote the Center via the conference memorabilia they bring back to their office. A clever strategy that will be discussed in its own post later this year.
Henriette was enthusiastic to share her experience but all the more so to hear about our own conclusions. We left Henriette with the impression that our attempt to write a history of the scientific conference may not just fill a gap in the historiography but was also likely to help practitioners think about their work and the changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you want to know more about the Lorentz Center, have a look at: https://www.lorentzcenter.nl/