The world goes on – keep going with virtual workshops

During the past week, we have held several virtual workshops with great success (see two examples in table 1). The outcome was as satisfactory as when conducting regular workshops – if not even better – despite there were many participants who were unfamiliar with this way of working. In this article, we share our experiences.

Virtual workshops can be just as effective as regular workshops – it is merely a different way of working. However, virtual workshops require a great deal more preparation and active facilitation. Three challenges should be addressed to ensure success:

+The technological challenge: If the technology does not work properly, the flow of the workshop is interrupted and delays are created, which at worst cause cancellations.

+The relational challenge: The physical separation makes it difficult to build new relations as well as feeling the atmosphere.

+The engaging challenge: Engaging participants is essential for a good output, as participants risk becoming passive, ‘zoning out’ and hiding behind the screen.

The good news is that the challenges of virtual workshops can be handled – and if done right, the collaboration process can become more efficient. Participants are typically more focused, and it saves time and expenses (e.g. on transportation costs and room rental) meeting virtually rather that physically. The key is good preparation and a detailed execution plan.

Planning a virtual workshop

Again, set aside plenty of time for planning the virtual workshop. Your first considerations should be what the purpose is and how long the workshop should last. As a rule of thumb, the more participants, the shorter the meeting. 60-90 minutes are at the high end of a virtual call. Therefore, try to break down the workshop into small chunks and remember to include breaks and group exercises.

Table 1: Examples of high-level execution plans from two virtual workshops

The purpose of the workshop and the number of participants are important for choosing the platform. Often, software such as Teams and Skype will do, but for workshops with many participants and use of video, platforms such as WebEx and Zoom may be relevant. If it is a more creative session, consider a tool like Miro that allows you to work on a large canvas together. It can work as a substitute for brown paper exercises.

We recommend defining clear roles before the workshop. Of course, there should be a facilitator, but this person should be supplemented by a technical supporter who controls the technical tools, and possibly a moderator who helps keep track of the chat and people’s input and questions.

Technology can be tricky. Therefore, always make sure to have a backup plan in case things go wrong. It can be as simple as a ‘dial in number’,  an alternative platform or to have participants watch a video while the tech supporter fixes the technology.

The outcome of the preparation should be a detailed plan of how the workshop will proceed. Optimally, you should do a test run before the workshop and make the necessary final adjustments.

Execution of a virtual workshop

In a normal workshop, the relational aspect is an important part that ensures engagement and a natural flow in the discussions. To build a certain level of intimacy and trust in a virtual workshop, it might be a good idea to start the meeting with a short ‘check-in’. Ask the participants how they will contribute to the workshop or what their expectations are.

Be sure to communicate clear principles and guidelines for the workshop, e.g. by encouraging participants to mute their microphones when they are not talking, turning on the video to support the relational aspect, and using the chat feature so that the participants can give input and ask questions during the workshop.

To keep people engaged, it is a good idea to take frequent breaks as well as ensure variation in format and process along the way. Preferably, monologues should not be longer than 10 minutes. Arrange group sessions in virtual meeting rooms or use interactive tools like Kahoot! or the poll feature. A good way to balance the program is to give participants longer breaks while facilitators from group sessions consolidate input from the groups.

It is important that the facilitator radiates energy and uses a precise language. One way of doing this might be to record video clips before the meeting – thus ensuring both energy and precision in the message, as the video can be redone until the result is satisfactory. It also makes it possible to involve people who are not attending the workshop.

However, please note that playing video clips over screen sharing rarely works optimally. Therefore, consider sharing a link to a (closed) YouTube channel. Keep track of how long the clip lasts and make it clear that you will meet again after exactly the time needed. In that way you maintain momentum. Ask participants to write a message (using the chat feature) when they are ready.

During the workshop, the facilitator should request feedback from the participants – whether the format works, whether it is too fast or slow, whether it is possible to contribute actively etc. This makes the facilitation better, and it builds trust.

Continuously consider making small summaries of important conclusions and state along the way what you have already achieved, and what is to come. It helps creating an overview for the participants and it ensures a common understanding.

The process, technical platforms and the use of different tools always depend on the context. That is why our very best advice is to get your own experiences with virtual meetings and find out what works for you and your organisation. But hopefully now you have a solid foundation.

We have gathered our best advice in table 2. Good luck with your next virtual workshop!

Table 2: Advice for virtual workshops