Laïla von Alvensleben of MURAL: “Time boxing is everything”

Build your team and agree on how you’ll communicate remotely, how often you’ll meet, a decision-making framework and the milestones you aim to reach before the event. If you don’t do this at the beginning, project management will very likely get messy later, so it’s worth spending more time in the beginning to sort those […]

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Build your team and agree on how you’ll communicate remotely, how often you’ll meet, a decision-making framework and the milestones you aim to reach before the event. If you don’t do this at the beginning, project management will very likely get messy later, so it’s worth spending more time in the beginning to sort those things out.

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laïla von Alvensleben, Head of Culture and Collaboration at MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. She manages a distributed team of 350+ people across multiple continents and time zones and is a champion for the remote-first and hybrid-remote approach to team collaboration, empowering MURAL’s rapidly growing team to successfully work from anywhere. Laïla’s background is in UX design, having worked on digital product design at Hanno and educational workshops at Hyper Island. She helped create the Remote Starter Kit and is a member of the Remote Work Association, a network that organizes online events to promote location-independent jobs.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

As a child raised in an expat family, I grew up in many different countries across South America, Europe and Africa. Moving from place to place every few years, changing schools, meeting new people and learning languages was normal for me. In hindsight, I realize how those early experiences shaped my future choices in the lifestyle I wanted to lead. I couldn’t see myself in one place for too long, so I did everything I could to continue being able to choose where I wanted to live (and work from).

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

My background is in design. I went from interior architecture to graphic design and then UX design. In 2013, after working as a graphic and UI designer for a few years, I wanted to study again and earned a Master of Arts in Digital Media Management at Hyper Island. At about the same time, I also decided I wanted to find a remote job so I could travel and work from anywhere. To support that ambition, I wrote my thesis on Remote Design Thinking and was hired as a UX designer in a fully remote product design company. Six years later, I’m still working remotely. I joined MURAL, first as an online facilitator and remote work coach, then as Head of People Operations, and now as Head of Culture and Collaboration.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my first months of working remotely, I was exploring the digital nomad lifestyle while travelling in Brazil. I was staying with a friend in Rio de Janeiro who was also a Judo teacher. His classes were in his living room and I was working in a hallway leading to the kitchen. One day, I was on a call with my boss and the team when suddenly a group of bare-chested guys started walking behind me. Through the webcam it looked like there were naked men strolling around since you couldn’t see their legs. I was so embarrassed but luckily my team had a laugh and it became a recurring joke for a while.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux was really inspiring to read. It explores the evolution of how companies are structured and organized, and showcases several large companies (with at least 400 employees) that were working in a completely novel way. For example, some of them applied the holacracy model, in which there’s almost no hierarchy and employees choose their own roles and work together in pods and work very autonomously. Some also had flexible working hours and a human-centric company culture with an emphasis on making decisions together, creating rituals based on empathy and constructive team feedback. At the time I read this I was working at Hanno, a fully distributed digital product design company that was a pioneer in many ways. We didn’t have an office, we chose our own salaries (they were also transparent), we didn’t have hierarchy, we had unlimited paid time off and we made decisions together using an advisory process similar to the one in the book. It was hugely influential in how we worked together and I’m convinced that our traditional way of working will eventually evolve to the models described in the book.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s a quote by the author Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’ve seen it play out between friends, relatives, colleagues and romantic partners. There are times when I’ve had to redefine how I wanted to stay connected with someone based on the interactions we had and filter out people whose words and actions didn’t add value to my sense of self. I’ve learned to distance myself from those who diminish or disrespect me, and instead surround myself with people who bring a more positive and constructive energy into our relationship.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

When I was a university student in Geneva, Switzerland, I worked at a lot of corporate and VIP events, luxury trade fairs and conferences to make some extra cash. I’d also volunteer at music and film festivals so I could attend cultural events for free. This gave me a lot of insight on how big events were organized. I was studying interior architecture at the time so one of the first events I helped organize was the scenography for a film launch. Years later I attended a lot of workshops delivered by expert facilitators and that planted the seed on learning how I could run my own workshops. I eventually discovered the digital format and built my skills in online facilitation. In parallel, I experimented with online and in-person events at my first remote job, which led me to help plan a surf and yoga retreat in Sri Lanka for about 10 people. A few years later at MURAL I organized a bigger company retreat for 100+ people in Argentina that included team building workshops and social events.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

I organize many online events at MURAL: our All Hands meetings for 400 employees across 17 countries, remote workshops for our customers, webinars and conferences, team building sessions, and more recently, virtual company retreats. When COVID-19 forced countries worldwide into lockdown, I celebrated my birthday online with friends from around the world. Instead of doing the usual Zoom meeting where people hang around, I created a virtual house party using Zoom and MURAL with multiple activities happening simultaneously in different Zoom rooms. It gave me tons of ideas on how to create a similar experience on a much larger scale for MURAL’s team. I put those ideas in action last summer with a virtual company retreat for 250+ employees. The theme was a MURAL World Tour that happened entirely online, complete with an airplane ticket invitation, pilots and flight attendants, an itinerary flying from snowy mountains to tropical beaches to outer space, in-flight entertainment and many gifts sprinkled throughout the journey.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

The virtual event that impressed me the most last year was the virtual version of Burning Man. This yearly event usually takes place in the desert in Nevada with 70,000 people co-creating a temporary city. When they had to cancel the event, the community came together to build the Multiverse, an infinitely expanding virtual world that included many of the iconic Burning Man elements like the playa, the Temple and the effigy of the man that burns. I couldn’t take part in all the activities during the week-long event, but the creativity of what I saw online blew me away, especially knowing how little time they had to build it. To replicate an event of that magnitude and originality, you’d need a mindset of endless possibilities and a group of people who care more about experimenting and pushing boundaries than about doing what is ‘expected’ at an online event.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think people limit themselves too much. They think of an online event as something boring that can’t be as engaging or fun as an in-person event. My advice is to assume there’s always an alternative for everything — it may not be exactly the same as what would happen during an in-person event, but there are other aspects of being online that can be leveraged to make it a better experience for everyone. I believe online events are also more inclusive because everyone can go through the experience in the same way and choose how present they want to be. For instance, it can be a much more comfortable experience for introverted people who don’t like big crowds. If they’re properly facilitated, it can give everyone a chance to have a voice, whether that be during a video call or on a messaging platform.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Of course I’m biased, but none of the events we do would be possible without MURAL! Using our platform alongside other tools like Zoom and Slack can create a successful virtual event. They cover the three basic components of an online event: the visual aspect (Zoom to see each other and MURAL to visualize what we’re doing), the interactive aspect (MURAL to engage with others in real time), and the conversational aspect (Slack to send messages).

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

There’s a lot of planning going into these events, so a project management tool like Asana or Trello is helpful. Using spreadsheets in Excel or Google Sheets is also useful when creating budgets or gathering data about your participants. I’ve seen polls and live Q&As being used effectively with tools like Mentimeter or Slido. After an event I also like to send out a survey for feedback in Google Forms, but you could also use a tool like SurveyMonkey or Typeform. And let’s not forget Spotify to set a mood! It’s incredible how music and sound can change the atmosphere in an instant.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Planning an event takes at least 2–3x the amount of time than the actual event. If you’re organizing a one-hour event, it will take you approximately 2–3 hours to prepare it. Of course, the more events you plan, the better you become at creating them and the less time you’ll need.
  2. Decide early on why you’re doing the event. If you’re doing it for an entire company (e.g. like a virtual retreat), ask your leadership team what success looks like for them. Then create a story around it and make sure everything that is being communicated and experienced is consistent with your story. It will make the event more memorable and help the event designer have a few restrictions that help foster creativity.
  3. Build your team and agree on how you’ll communicate remotely, how often you’ll meet, a decision-making framework and the milestones you aim to reach before the event. If you don’t do this at the beginning, project management will very likely get messy later, so it’s worth spending more time in the beginning to sort those things out.
  4. Rehearse! Go through the entire event journey or script with your speakers and facilitators at least once. Test things out: make sure your equipment is working properly and that the instructions are clear at every stage of the event. You will always find things to iterate that you wouldn’t have found if you hadn’t tested it. Ask speakers to practice giving their talk and find ways for the participants to interact with them so that it doesn’t sound like a webinar.
  5. Time boxing is everything. The trick to making an activity exciting is to set a dedicated amount of time (use a timer — MURAL has one in the product!). The time pressure will keep people engaged because they know it won’t last too long and it helps facilitators stay on track too.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The first step would be to figure out why you should have the event, what your budget is, and how much time you have to prepare it. All three will greatly define your experience but once you know what you have as a foundation, you can start planning accordingly.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d create a movement around personal development and mental health. Admitting that you have mental health issues has definitely improved over the years, but it’s still not spoken about widely enough. We’re all humans with our own set of experiences and baggage, and it would make a huge difference on an individual and societal level if we were more open about our struggles without feeling shame. There are more and more professionals and platforms out there that can provide support, which is great. Yet, mental health is still something that is mainly spoken about with a therapist and not necessarily at home or in the workplace where we spend the majority of our time. I can imagine a lot of other issues would be resolved if we took the time to listen and understand how people felt in order to support each other better.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to meet Brené Brown. Her talks on vulnerability and shame struck a chord with so many people, including organizations that invited her to speak to their leaders and employees. It’s about time that we become intentional about having these kinds of conversations with each other. I’ve listened to her podcast too and aside from being a nerd (I’m all for that) she seems to be a warm, friendly and genuine person. We need more of that!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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