Scheduling CSCW ’21: The Time Zone Question

The sheer variety of online conference schedules we have all experienced over the past 18 months are testament to the fact that time zones are a difficult challenge for virtual events, and it’s not clear that there is an optimal solution. We also remind you that this was (is?) a challenge even at in-person conferences, as anybody who has groggily stumbled through paper sessions and receptions after a long overnight flight will attest.

In this post, we will explain the scheduling choices we made for CSCW 2021.

We were guided by three principles: 1) most conference sessions needed to be held when most of the presenters and likely participants could reasonably be awake, 2) we didn’t want to exhaust people with long days online, and 3) we had to do something that was logistically feasible for our technical support contractors and student volunteers.

To address the first principle, our CSCW Meta chairs (thanks, Sarah and Michael Ann!) ran a pre-conference survey that was advertised on CSCW social media channels. There were 380 respondents who indicated their expected country and time zone during CSCW 21. About 72% expected to be in the US or Canada, and 90% of respondents expected to be between UTC -7 (PDT) and UTC +3 (Eastern Europe). That led us to consider UTC -4 (EDT), which is fairly central in that range. A 10 am – 5 pm EDT day means we start at 7am for those on the US west coast, and end at midnight in Eastern Europe. These times may push at some people’s comfort zones, but did not feel unreasonable for the vast majority of participants who will join the conference. 

We know everybody is tired of spending time online, however we also have an incredibly rich program to fit into a tight schedule. To address the second principle, we tried to limit each day to about 6 total hours of live content. This meant increasing the number of parallel sessions to accommodate our full program. We have scheduled periodic breaks, but also assume that people will schedule some of their own meal/coffee/snack/social breaks at times appropriate to their time zone and situation. Please be conscious of your own goals and needs as you select the sessions you plan to attend. Also be conscious that there will be an extensive amount of content available on the conference platform to consult in your own time, including video presentations for most venues.

Our incredible support staff and network of student and other volunteers couldn’t reasonably be expected to be available around the clock, given available resources. By scheduling the conference during a contiguous 8-hour block of time each day, we are able to best coordinate their services to ensure a smooth and within-budget conference.

As we said at the outset, scheduling a virtual, international event is a massive challenge with few optimal solutions. We feel that we have arrived at a schedule that will work reasonably well for most CSCW participants, but know this isn’t true for everybody. In particular we acknowledge and appreciate the challenges presented for our colleagues in Asia and Australia. We hope that everybody is able to find ways to participate in and take advantage of everything CSCW 21 has to offer!