My Journey Back to In-Person Workshops
Exploring Different Tools for Collaboration
As I stood masked and vaxxed in the middle of the large room with a dozen faces staring back at me, I found myself uncharacteristically nervous. I’m no stranger to public speaking or facilitating conversation, but this moment was different. This time I was leading my first in-person workshop after two years of working from home throughout a worldwide pandemic. Two years of screens and multitasking and my dog Alfie napping at my feet. Amidst the butterflies of this old-experience-turned-new-again, I definitely could have used Alfie’s support.
As strategy director at branding and design studio ThoughtMatter, my job is to help navigate through ambiguity, simplify complexity and overcome obstacles through creativity. One of my favorite parts in any client journey is the workshop. We immerse ourselves in the brand and challenges at hand, then go away and design a series of activities to confront those challenges from as many angles as possible. In doing so, we can collectively imagine solutions that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Pre-pandemic, these workshops were held in-person. They allowed us to create a space where clients could free themselves from the day-to-day and unleash their imagination, and where totally random thoughts could lead to breakthrough ideas. That of course all changed in 2020.
While preparing for our first virtual workshop, we were all a bit unsure of how it would go. We leaned into an online tool called Miro to house our collaboration and did internal run throughs to identify and address topics and activities that weren’t translating to the new format. We probably went a bit overboard, but the workshop turned out to be a wonderful, even cathartic, experience as we were all just trying to do our best amidst so much uncertainty.
That workshop also came with its challenges. The zoom fatigue was real. None of us were used to spending that much time on a call and we learned after that to cap all virtual workshops at 90 minutes. We also immediately missed the physical sensations that come with pinning things up, jotting down notes or sifting through cards to find inspiration. We missed the movement.
Workshops are physical activities, especially for the facilitator. We’re responsible for maintaining the energy levels in the room, which is much harder to do from a screen. In our first virtual attempt, we saw people fade and become quickly distracted. In person, we can politely ask everyone to put away their phones, laptops and screens. Virtually, it’s a lot easier for people to quickly check an email or respond to a slack with nobody the wiser.
I never thought transitioning back to in-person workshops would be equally emotional. After so many months of isolation, we wanted to acknowledge people’s mental state to make sure everyone involved in the workshop felt at ease and ready to contribute.
So, as I stood in front of our clients, trying my best to project an air of confidence and enthusiasm, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one with a whole lot of feelings. For many, it was the first time they had seen their colleagues in months. It was heartwarming to bear witness to their big reunion.
Once things got moving, it was like riding a bike. There were a few tough moments due to masks like mishearing things or not being able to see full facial expressions, but I’m glad we put safety first. Something different happens when you’re standing next to your colleagues with a sharpie in your hands, wielding paper, tape and post-its. There is an energy that just can’t be replicated virtually.
With this first in-person workshop under our belt and more in the works, it’s important to accept the reality that hybrid work is not going away and distinguish what can be done virtually and what should be done in-person. The answer lies in considering what you’re trying to accomplish.
In some cases, a virtual working session, equipped with online tools like Miro, can be perfect for quick meetings and alignment. Events that can have a bit more gravitas to them should be done in-person. This allows for longer in-depth discussions and for more people to join in. Coming together in the same space helps get everyone on the same page and build excitement.
Now that we have the option for both virtual and in-person workshops, we have more tools than ever to help us collaborate. There’s no replacing the feeling of energy, shared discovery and insight that happens when people are in a room together, but one experience is not better than the other. The focus should be using the right tool for the job at hand.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go walk Alfie.