How To: Plan a Retreat during a Pandemic?

At the end of August 2020 Diana Armbruster approached the PhD students of the CRC and asked for volunteers to organize their first retreat within the Hybrid Societies CRC. At first it seemed, like none had time to organize an event for 38 attendees – everyone was confronted with a wide variety of tasks, such as finding their way around in such a large scientific association, rescheduling due to the corona situation and finding a topic for their thesis. But luckily, we were finally able to split the work over 5 pairs of shoulders. We met on September 29th, unfortunately for the first and only time face to face due to the Corona situation. Since then, we switched to online meetings.

On-Site, Off-Site, Hybrid?

From the very beginning, the difficulty was to decide in which form the retreat should take place. On-site, online, hybrid? At first, we thought hybrid might be a good idea, as we would have liked to have the option to meet and get to know each other face to face with appropriate arrangements. We assigned tasks, like to find a nice location where we could all meet safely or what kind of catering should we book, that all our stomachs are nicely fed, whilst giving those who did not want to take the risk the opportunity to attend. However, it slowly became apparent that Corona will strike even harder in the fall / winter. With the “second wave” and safety of all our colleagues in mind, we decided to declare the retreat an online only event. But how should we transform a face-to-face meeting into an online only event without sacrificing interactions and informal talks? And how should the agenda look like to prevent it from feeling like a series of lectures?

Encourage Participation in Online Meetings

It is easier to get into a conversation with other people when talking to them directly. It seems way more difficult at an online event! In our Experience, online events usually look like this: most have their cameras switched off and you don’t even know whether one is actually in front of the computer, making a coffee, still wearing his/her pyjamas or is distracted by the Professors’ latest E-Mail. Most of the time the only thing you see are the names of the participants on your screen, with one person talking to the others. We wanted to initiate real interactions, since we did not have the opportunity yet. So, the challenge was, how to get this done? We all had question marks hovering over our heads.

To figure out how to answer those questions and set up an agenda for the retreat, we’ve met weekly from then on. We did a lot of brainstorming, collecting ideas, testing online tools… and a little bit of mocking around. We tried to get creative in order to be able to present an interesting event despite the situation. We quickly came to realize that it would not be possible to let everybody talk to everybody else in a strictly organized manner, due to time constraints. Furthermore, we’ve early noticed that the longer a video conference lasted, the more exhausting it gets. Thus, we thought: couldn’t we use those constraints and take them one step further? The idea of speed-dating with only a very short time frame for each meeting was born. In gather-town we found a great tool to support us in the implementation of this idea.

But the retreat shouldn’t only be about catching up with missing opportunities. It should also support everybody with their work and personal problems, as well as finding ways to work together in our CRC family. So, we organized having external speakersand asked our colleagues from projects INF and Ö if they wanted to contribute further talks.

Since it got clear that each of us were facing some sort of problems and was carrying some worries regarding their PhD-projects, another important topic for us was to identify if there are common concerns that we could and should discuss with the larger group. We knew that this session (working title: “Soul-Striptease”) was very sensitive and seemingly it experienced most discussion, since we weren’t sure how people might react when they are told to talk about which problems they are facing? We decided it would be best, if such aspects are asked for in an anonymous way, so we prepared a survey and planned to evaluate the results together.


The morning of Monday, December 7th had arrived and we were keen but also a little bit nervous to see how the other PhD students would perceive the program we had planned. Sure, we spent hours of organizing and thinking about how to get everyone to participate to make the most of our first meeting with the whole group, but in the end it all boils down to how motivated everyone was to participate. We started the day with the “Get Together” session. In 8 rounds, around 7 minutes each, everybody had the opportunity to get to know (almost) everybody else and talk about their PhD projects, but most importantly about their interests, passions, life in Chemnitz and everything that came to their mind. The session quickly turned out to be a success, since the atmosphere was quite frisky even with the limited amount of time everybody had. This was a great relief and an indication for us that our efforts were perceived well by the attendees.

The rest of the day focused on building a common environment and supporting everybody in their future work and ultimate goal to get an PhD. We’ve heard a talk by our guest speaker Dr. Alexander Egeling, who gave an overview over different ways to do an PhD, as well as how different faculties at our university handle things differently. Furthermore, we took the posters from our Autumn School and used them in an informal atmosphere to create a better understanding of what the other CRC members are working on. With the Open Science session, moderated by Katharina Jahn (B01), we discussed how we can improve our scientific process to improve on the way we publish and communicate our research results and make it more transparent.

Although the organization of the retreat caused a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun. The pandemic complicated things for all of us, but on the other hand the regular meetings turned out to be a welcoming deviation from our usual daily routine. With the end of the retreat, we all were relieved and satisfied that our colleagues acclaimed the event that well. However, we were also a little bit sad, since our small group grew together quite nicely over the time.

We want to say thank you to all the attendees, speakers and guests. We hope that we can meet in person this year. The best of it is yet to come…

Ann-Christin Hensch (D02), Jennifer Brade (C02), Sabrina Bräuer (B02), Carsten Rudolph (B03) and Konstantin Felbel (D02)