Knowledge Transfer & Team Building During the Coronavirus Pandemic: The ZEISS Digital Innovation Online Campus Event

Once a year, ZEISS Digital Innovation (ZDI) invites employees from all ZDI locations to a summer festival with a two-day in-house training seminar at our headquarters in Dresden.

During these two days, interesting presentations and workshops in various technical subject fields are provided by and for the employees. The program is framed by an agile team game where mixed teams compete against each other in various disciplines ranging from quizzes to games of skill and sports activities. The variety allows each team member to contribute their individual skills. At the end of the first day, everyone can then take time to talk and get to know each other better in a leisurely atmosphere with tasty street food and refreshments.

The challenges of realizing the campus event under difficult circumstances

But then the coronavirus struck—now what? Should we cancel this year’s campus event and the team game? Would there be a way for us to bring all our colleagues together despite the virus, to enable the knowledge transfer and further strengthen team spirit? We needed a new format that would allow us to realize such an event despite the physical distance and predominantly mobile work.

That is why we decided to plan our first joint online campus event as a half-day event. In addition to the formal organization and the content of the online campus event and the online team game, a number of technical aspects had to be taken into account: How could we avoid annoying disturbances and delays in the transmission during the presentations? Did all of our colleagues have sufficient bandwidth, even if they were not working at one of our locations?

Then we had to consider the ideal length of the presentations and breaks, the best way to clearly present information, the size of the teams, and the design of a diversified online team game.

Plus: Which tool was both sufficiently reliable and capable of meeting all the technical and organizational requirements? What about compatibility with other tools used by our colleagues in their presentations? In the end, we decided to use Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Teams Live Events. All of us were already familiar with the tool, and it was sufficiently reliable to meet our requirements.

Online training seminars by and for colleagues

As usual, each of our colleagues had the opportunity to submit topics to present as speakers for the online campus event. Even though some of them were under a strain in their private life that was higher than normal, e.g. due to homeschooling, many used this opportunity to submit their own topic. As a result, our online campus event comprised 32 exciting presentations in the competence fields of cloud computing, web, QA, Java, agile/scrum, business analysis, usability, and application security. For example, one presentation gave insight into the functions of AWS Athena, and another gave advice on the realization of micro-frontends.

Each slot was 30 minutes long, and the presentations took place in eight parallel virtual rooms. The listeners could use the breaks to collect and prepare themselves for the next topic and, if necessary, switch to another session. Furthermore, this allowed the speakers to start their respective presentations comfortably and without problems, either at the office or from home.

Even though we are used to working in distributed locations every day, a distributed online campus event is an altogether different experience. As scrum masters and coaches, we always try to make our contributions as interactive as possible. By means of whiteboards, which enabled the attendees to actively participate, we were able to somewhat blur the lines between the remote workplaces. I think it is important that at least some participants switch on their camera, so that the speaker does not speak to an ‘empty room’.

Ines Reiche, Speaker at the online campus event, Scrum Master, ZEISS Digital Innovation

Distributed collaboration in the online team game

In addition to the transfer of technical knowledge, getting to know each other and having fun together was equally important, just like at the previous campus events: The team game has long been an important element of our campus event, and because of the unique situation this year, the participants were particularly excited and curious.

Each team was given a separate virtual team room where they were able to interact, without interference, to solve the respective tasks. As usual, the teams were assembled to be as heterogeneous as possible, e.g. with respect to their roles, level of seniority, and location. Thus, colleagues who rarely meet in their daily work were able to get to know each other and work together. The tasks were designed to be as entertaining and diverse as possible. At the same time, it was important to make sure the tasks could not be solved with a simple web search.

Conclusion & outlook

We are happy to report that a total of 248 colleagues participated in our online campus event, and that 19 teams competed in the online team game. Our first online campus event was an exciting new experience for all of us. Despite the different format and the mobile distribution, the anticipation, enthusiasm and commitment of all the participants were palpable. Furthermore, we were able to identify some potential for improvement that we will take into account next time.

Our new format proved that irrespective of the distributed collaboration and limited personal contact at the time, we are still ONE strong team exploring new paths together. We will use these unusual times to continue to develop our new format, and we are looking forward to the next event.

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