Over the past few weeks, here in Australia, organisations like the one I work for have started implementing work from home policies and limiting workplace gatherings, as is the sensible thing to do in our current situation. But this social isolation has not stopped the wheels moving, we’re all still busy at work getting things done.
One thing, however, has been dramatically impacted, the humble workshop.
Over the past year, as a multinational organisation, we’ve been challenged to become more inclusive of attendees in multiple geographies, when we’re running our internal working sessions. So we got a little bit of a headstart in the implementation of virtual workshops.
I’ll start by saying, virtual workshops are not easy.
In the past we’ve all experienced one, and usually: the tech doesn’t work, someone can’t hear the speaker, someone is talking to a coworker without being on mute, someone is taking the call from their phone so can’t see any presentation materials. This series of disasters turn us off from doing anything virtual.
But in these trying times, virtual workshops are the new norm.
Let’s face it, with events over 500 outdoors banned, events over 100 indoors banned, and many organisations recommending or forcing their employees to work from home, this way of working is going to be commonplace. So to start you on the journey of virtual workshops, here are some of our tips…
Virtual Workshops require the mindset and principles of physical workshops
- Attendees need to be present in the room (even more so if virtual), they need to avoid distractions and set up a good space to attend the session. As someone designing virtual workshops, think about your attendee's needs, you’ll need more breaks, large periods of time for lunch and morning/afternoon teas as people will be at home, not given catered food.
- Attendees need to do their pre-work and know the agenda, virtual workshops, even more than physical, require people to come prepared and know what to expect. As some designing for this, you need to send out agendas, with detailed instructions on the virtual tools, virtual methods, and facilitation style.
- Attendees need to listen to the facilitators and partake in group activities when they are scheduled. As someone designing for this, think about having a Virtual MC, someone who steers the workshop from start to finish, who initiates and tests the virtual tools, someone who introduces sessions and presenters virtually, someone responsible for Plan B, and when things don’t go so well. Also, someone needs to keep the conversation flowing, so having MC interjections in pause times or changeovers is a workshop-saver.
- The agenda should run like a conference, think about your typical workshop agenda and deconstruct it, with sessions, group activities, individual thinking time, survey time, breaks, masterclasses etc. Think about sitting in a virtual workshop for an entire day, no one will be able to endure that. So you need to build in the flexibility of a conference. Some sessions are mandatory, some aren’t. Some sessions you can sneak in some other work while semi-listening, others you need to be fully attentive. As someone designing these sessions, be realistic about the mental energy you need from each person, and when.
- The tech needs to be tested, and you need a backup plan in place. There’s nothing worse than getting a group of people lined up to work virtually, and then tech doesn’t work. Test your tools often, have cheat sheets for attendees to self-diagnose issues and reconnect, have a backup plan, in an offline format, sent to all attendees so they know what to do if everything goes quiet.
- Attendees should share more than normal, being at home is isolating, even if you’re listening in on a call. Your facilitator or Virtual MC should have the names of everyone attending and in groups of three or four (in case one person is semi-listening so they don’t feel called out) ask for feedback and opinions, or general check-ins on how they’re going. Keeping people connected is the hardest part of running anything virtually, the facilitator or MC needs to be conscious of this and keep people active in the conversation.
- Attendees should be creative with their environment, when you’re at a conference, you have all sorts of stage displays, coffee carts, snack areas, music, videos playing, supplier booths etc. When you’re in a workshop in the physical world, the creators will ensure that your experience in the room is a memorable one. But when you’re sitting at home, listening on headphones, it’s up to you. Invite your attendees to get creative with their space, bringing in inspiration from various sources, having snacks, music, plan to phone a friend for a chat during a break, anything that can help them feel a bit of the real world in their own space.
- Pre- and post-workshop is just as important as the actual session, think about how you can inspire attendees to think big, and how you can prompt them to let their guards down, become vulnerable, and contribute ideas. Think about how you take the outputs of the workshop, and do something valuable with them, and keep everyone in the loop. There’s nothing worse than a workshop that results in nothing. Especially if people are dedicating time to attend virtually. Have a clear plan for the next steps, already have the next session booked in. Give the attendees the confidence that things are happening, not after the session, but before they even attend.
- The methods and tools must be all-inclusive, in physical workshops we have techniques, and the EQ to notice if people are feeling comfortable enough to contribute. This gets harder to do when virtual. Plan and practice your methods and tools to ensure that everyone, regardless of their situation, can contribute. Think about impairments that might constrain people from participating or contributing, and design to overcome them.
- Bring fun and creativity into the workshop (this should have been #1) just because we’re all working at home, innovation, creativity, and fun shouldn’t have to stop. Think about how you bring fun, laughter, moments of inspiration, moments of pure creativity, and joy into your virtual workshops. It is possible. You just have to get your thinking cap on.
I hope this list helps people looking to run virtual workshops. In my honest opinion, it’s one of the things that will keep us all together in these trying times. We still need to share and collaborate and move forward together, so virtual workshops are only going to get more prevalent in the business world.
We’ll have more thoughts out over the next few months as we run more and more virtual workshops across businesses and the public sector.