Working remotely has become the new norm for many companies and teams around the world. These limits to physical interaction have created opportunities to work and relate in different ways, which come with practical and technical implications.
Confinement, and more recently, social distancing, have significantly altered the way people work, socialize and ultimately deliver impact with our work. While working remotely may be familiar to most professionals, delivering successful virtual workshops is a less explored territory.
Even as restrictions are eased, many of us continue to adapt, running previously scheduled in-person workshops in a virtual setting now, or needing to design virtual set-ups from the outset.
As many of us have experienced, a workshop can be a powerful tool for sharing information, generating new ideas, rallying teams around a plan, agreeing on goals or making key decisions.
While the ingredients to deliver a successful face-to-face workshop still apply to a virtual setting, one needs to pay closer attention in order to achieve a specific purpose/goal, and design activities to keep the audience engaged, wherever they may be.
Nevertheless with the right selection of collaborative digital tools, thorough workshop preparation and tailored facilitation, it is possible to deliver good, if not better, outcomes via a virtual workshop.
From our experience several elements contribute to success in delivering a workshop through a virtual setting: 1) Setting the right expectations (purpose/outcome) from the outset and crafting the agenda accordingly, 2) Selecting the right technology and maximizing its benefits, 3) Investing in pre-work and carefully organizing the deliverables, 4) Rehearsing through ‘dry-run’ sessions beforehand, 5) Optimizing the use of time in a virtual set-up and tailoring facilitation to meet the agreed purpose/outcome, 6) Following up after the workshop on the agreed actions, decisions and topics identified that need additional consideration.
Virtual workshops can also bring a new set of concerns and challenges to the table that should be considered for preparation and delivery, particularly if you are working/consulting within diverse clients:
• Corporations are in different stages of adopting digital tools and have dissimilar cultural backgrounds. This may have an impact when running idea generation or creative exercises online and even sensing the ‘mood of the room’;
• Individual members may find it harder to engage and participate in a virtual set-up, requiring additional support;
• Technology can sometimes be unpredictable.
• Participants may be adapting to different personal situations and some may struggle to set boundaries between home duties and the new virtual set up;
Most of us miss face-to-face interactions and might think we are most effective in in-person settings, yet this situation offers a good opportunity to reflect on different ways of working and cooperation across the globe, social distancing measures aside. Some individuals may be equally, if not more, effective working remotely, while gains in productivity and efficiency may turn out to be significant across the workforce.
As we move towards the new norm companies might be more mindful and selective when choosing between a face-to-face and a virtual workshop, considering the benefits and added value observed in virtual workshops:
• Unpreceded opportunity to explore new ways of working and speed up digitalization
• Global reach and inclusivity
• Right people (skills & expertise) in the right sessions; more efficient decision making / better outcomes
• Stronger focus on key priorities and delivering the desired
• More focus on the outcomes and less out-of-scope discussions
• Recording sessions creates opportunities for testing, learning and re-use
• Deeper, more focused co-creation
• Digitally documented outcomes
Personal and corporate time savings
• No travel time required / less travel time outside of working hours
• Less away from ‘day job’ time and “in-between” time loss
Cost saving and reduced logistical efforts
Reducing carbon footprint and positive
With this reflection in mind, we hope that by sharing our learnings, we will contribute to our readers’ abilities and desires to deliver a highly effective virtual experience.
Preparation: Before a virtual workshop / our curated recommendation
Framing the interaction: Starting this phase earlier and involving key stakeholders is even more critical. Focus on defining a clear purpose, objective, agenda, the list of must-have participants and:
• Communicate a clear standard for how the presentations should be delivered
• Use surveys and pre-work sessions to collect expectations, desired workshop outcomes and identify potential ‘hot topics’ that will require more attention
• For decision making sessions: organize pre-workshop sessions to generate draft outcomes
• Encourage the team to participate in ‘dry run’ ‘sessions and offer to coach for presenters
Selecting participants: The goal must be to have the right people in the right sessions and, ideally, that all of them come with a clearly assigned role.
• Select participants based on their knowledge of the topic, decision making power, and importance of securing their buy-in
• Consider splitting the workshop into smaller sessions, inviting only the key stakeholders to each
Choosing Digital Tools: Driving engagement, fostering creativity and capturing insights in a dynamic way with minor disruption of the flow, are among the key factors to consider for a coherent virtual experience
• Consider the technology ecosystem implemented in the company, yet challenge “the standard” if it is not fit for purpose
• Collaboration tools are particularly key in design/co-creation workshops (e.g. Jamboard, Mural, IdeaFlip, etc); look for the right one and make sure you know how to use them effectively
Setting up the timeframe:
• Aim for a maximum of 4 hours per day with a break every 90 minute
• Consider splitting the workshop across several days, being mindful of different time zones and people’s shorter attention span in a virtual setup
| Preparation checklist|
• Define clear objectives, purpose and expected outcomes
• Align on workshop agenda and duration, mindful of time zones
• Agree on list of participants per session
• Establish clear expectations and task allocation/ownership of the agenda slots well ahead of time
• Choose Facilitators
• Schedule pre-work sessions scheduled and send pre-reads ready to send with enough advance notice
• Choose digital tools, focusing on impact, with attention to company policies
• Sanity-check on participants’ access and training on the chosen digital tools
Delivery: During a virtual workshop / our curated recommendations
| Building rapport and trust: Allowing time for introductions is fundamental and particularly if participants don’t know each other very well|
• If time is limited for presentations during the workshop, find creative ways for introductions. For example, notify participants in advance to prepare a fun presentation about themselves and include it in the pre-reads
Facilitating effectively: Face-to-face workshops are immersive, making it easier to guide discussions and allowing facilitators to read body language. Virtual workshops make it harder to sense the “feelings/emotions” of the group, to keep the levels of attention high and to minimize interruption. Great facilitators find the balance to maximize impact by:
• Engaging different stakeholders in the facilitation of the workshop
• Promoting high spirits, collaboration and engagement in creative activities, when possible
• Having reduced out-of-scope conversations – using the virtual boards, chat functions or parking lots to capture them
• Involving participants via check-ins and questions during the sessions
Getting to outcomes/agreements: Although more challenging, reaching clear outcomes/ conclusions and/or making decisions is equally critical
• Start each session by stating the previously agreed objectives and desired outcomes
• Refer to agreed objectives to facilitate conclusions and decisions during the meeting
• Record outputs and draw attention to them during the session (as opposed to after the session)
• Validate key conclusions, decisions taken and next steps
• Use the closing to check if there are any questions or concerns
Technology: Test your tools before the meeting and minimize, to the extent possible, challenges such as wi-fi breakers, or issues with sharing documents or untested tools
| Preparation checklist|
•Keep presentations short (no more than 10 minutes)
• Focus on the agreed objectives
•Minimize distractions and out of scope discussions
• Ensure that all participants have equal time to contribute
•Practice active listening (be on mute, yet be present)
• Check for collaboration, manage the breaks if needed
• Try to keep time but be flexible when needed
• Logistics covered:
Camera ON policy communicated
External microphone/ headset
Screen share visible for all