How to run great virtual workshops

Running virtual workshops is very different to running them face to face, but it’s the new norm. Here are 5 takeaways so you can successfully run them too

How to run great virtual workshops

How to run great virtual workshops 1066 562 Visible Pathway

Author: Chris Rodowicz  |  Reading Time: 10-11 minutes

Here at Visible Pathway we deliver consulting expertise and value to our customers virtually. We do it by design. However it can require that business teams come together as a group in workshops to apply the new business theory to their actual business. In these challenging times we have had to find ways for our customers to do these workshops virtually as they have moved to having their workforce work from home for what could be a significant amount of time.

photo courtesy unsplash.com

So how do you run a virtual workshop successfully? We recently facilitated a virtual group workshop for one of our customers involving 10 people across 3 time zones. Here is what we learnt. We have included a checklist for you and some pro tips that will help you not to get stressed and to make your first virtual workshops a brilliant success.

5 key takeaways were:

  1. Virtual workshops take a little more preparation than a face to face environment

  2. You may need to deal with myriad tech issues, its best to involve your IT people early and not try to deal with it yourself

  3. If it is your first time then do a dry run with all participants a few days before, and ask people to log on 5 minutes ahead of time

  4. Break up longer sessions and re-structure your content into smaller chunks as people’s attention span is reduced on video calls

  5. There is an abundance of great technology out there that make your life easier, take advantage of it

Preparation

You do need to be more prepared than in a face to face meeting as there are a few more things that can go wrong in a virtual environment. If you have ever prepped for a software demo you will know what I am talking about. A good chunk of the additional challenge is to do with people and technology. This is because you are now dealing with individual’s different technology and their confidence with it. The device they are going to use may not necessarily have been provided by their employer. People may not feel comfortable making any changes to their computers and they do not like being seen by their colleagues as a dummy when it comes to technology. You don’t want anyone feeling like this, particularly senior executives.

Check with your IT people to see if there are any issues with what you want to do and how you propose to do it.  They will want to know what technology you are using, whether software needs to be downloaded to company owned hardware and whether you need to access files etc inside the firewall plus plus plus.

External participants

If your workshop involves external participants then send them an email explaining what you propose to do and how. In the email ask them to also forward it to their IT people and bring them into the loop. This is really important as you want to flag any issues as soon as possible and not on the day of the workshop. Don’t avoid or overlook them as you are most likely going to need their support to make it all work the first time.

photo courtesy unsplash.com

Pro tip – give all participants the name of your best IT support person well in advance of the workshop to get things set up correctly so that it all works on the day and nobody gets to feel stressed or inferior in front of their colleagues when the workshop gets under way. Let the IT support person know that you are doing this too and what to expect, send them your tech prep checklist to get feedback from them and to make sure they understand what you are trying to do. Have this person on standby during the workshop but particularly from 15 minutes before the start time to 15 minutes after.

Workshop Invite checklist

Your invite will need to be a bit different and a bit more detailed. Use the notes section in the invite (or include an attachment) to include all the following information for participants. You will want to include heading such as:

photo courtesy unsplash.com

Date and time – include the time zone referred to when issuing the time and date and duration of the workshop. E.g. 25 March 2020, 0930-1200 AEST. Be sensitive to the local time where your participants are located. This is assuming you have people in different time zones (remember Australia alone has up to 4!)

Don’t assume attendance where the time zone is midnight so record the session for their review and feedback. And if they do attend, don’t assume they will be coherent enough to participate. Allow them time to provide feedback the following day at a more reasonable hour.

Agenda – standard as per a face to face workshop although maybe broken into shorter sessions more on that later in this article.

Technology links include all key links AND instructions to the technology that is being used e.g. the video conferencing tool, the audio conferencing tool, the collaboration tool, the data repository or any files to be referenced.

Pro tip – they might have to download some software which may cause issues with your IT dept so check over everything with them before the day of the workshop.

Participant Requirements – this all needs to be checked by participants no later than 2 days before the workshop so you have tome to address any issues and there will be issues if this is the first time for some people.

  1. Stable internet connection – worst case tether to their phone, this might require IT support
  2. Be in a quiet place – free of other distractions
  3. Any software required – to be downloaded and working
  4. Laptop or PC – with webcam and a microphone, advise them to have their charger nearby as video conferencing is an intensive user of battery. Does everyone have a laptop or PC they can use for this purpose? If not arrange or suggest alternatives e.g. personal tablets, their partners or children’s tablet or laptop or worst case their phone. It may be that they need to download an app and sometimes, this can take up to 5 minutes.
  5. Microphone and headphones – People may need an audio headset that plugs into their laptop using a USB port or similar, advise them of the preferred one particularly if everybody has a company laptop, and tell them to expense it if they feel they need to.
  6. Paper and pen- it’s a little old fashioned when you’re running a workshop in digital land but there’s nothing worse than a scribe tapping away on their keyboard while you’re trying to hold a discussion. Have someone take notes, everyone in their group should take down their own action items but also consider having the audio transcribed after the virtual workshop. There are plenty of transcription services and apps available.
Pro tip – Include a support number they can phone if having issues, probably yours.

Ask everyone to get on 5 minutes early especially if this is the first time they have done it.

Do a ‘dry run’

If this is your first virtual workshop then I suggest you do a trial run with as many of the participants at least 2 days before if possible. If you cannot get everyone then try to do this with the people who may have not ever done a virtual workshop before. Make this a proper ‘dry run’ to see what works and what does not.

Have IT support on standby for the dry run. And make sure they are aware of your workshop in case you need some help at the outset. It is also helps you as you get familiar with how it all works to under a real scenario, how to navigate the menus, whether participants needs to download some software (which IT will want to know about). It is all very different and more stressful when you have lots of people watching you!

Pro tip – Practice sharing screens and handing over presenter rights to some other participants and get familiar with the navigation and setup of the technology tools you are using. Encourage people to ask questions using the messaging tool.

Using video

Video participation is a very big part of a successful virtual workshop, so video should be obligatory. Trust me, it’s awkward the first few times but after a while it becomes the norm and it’s far more engaging than just audio. Expect that some of your participants are going to be nervous about being on video. People need to tell you BEFORE time if they have a problem with this request and why. We have found that people not on video can and will get distracted, they do other things (ie read emails, send text messages, doodle) and don’t participate as effectively as they should.

Pro tip – make video mandatory.

And share some guidelines in advance. For example, no walking around while on video as it tends to cause motion sickness in other participants. Pick a suitable, quiet room where pets and children can be closed out. And check what will be visible in the background because the last thing you want is to see your colleague’s newly renovated bathroom. Some video apps will let you blur the background or add your own custom one.

And naturally everybody has to be able to see everybody else.

What needs to change

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Break up longer sessions – If you are planning a full day workshop we would recommend breaking it up into shorter sessions, maybe a maximum of 2.5 hours. We found that virtual sessions are more demanding on people and any longer than that and they lost enthusiasm and started to ‘wander off’. So let people have a break of at least an hour between sessions.

If you can spread the workshop over several days then probably even better. It will depend on the workshop purpose and people’s availability too. And if you do spread out the sessions over days, be sure to include a 10 minute recap of previous talking points at the beginning of the new session.

Restructure the content – If part of your workshop is educational or training related, you will find people’s attention span is shorter in the virtual space so try to make this part briefer and even break it up differently to adopt a ‘learn and do’ approach. Maybe start with a short piece on theory say 10-15 minutes then get them doing an activity of similar duration related to that item. Then do another short theory piece and it’s related activity. Structure the program like this as opposed to say a morning of theory and an afternoon of practical exercises. Depending on how you have broken up the workshop this might now be roll into the next day in which case most of what the participants learnt the day before will be forgotten.

Use the ‘mute’ feature – If part of your workshop is educational then have the participants go on mute to minimise background noise. Also some people will be more passive participants in certain parts of the workshop and that is fine. Encourage those people who are not necessarily active in the current conversation to go on mute. Encourage them to communicate with hand signals e.g. thumbs up if they agree with what was just said or down if not. Have them unmute if they want to ask a question. Always leave their video on though.

We found this really useful for avoiding people talking over each other. Unlike a face to face session where people can talk at the same time in a virtual meeting only one person will be heard at a time. Overall using mute actually improved the overall group conversation.

What doesn’t (need to change)

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The fundamentals – Whilst running a workshop in a virtual environment does bring with it some change there are still some fundamental things that remain the same. You still need to have coffee breaks, comfort breaks, so if you are running a 2.5 hour session we would allow for 1 x 15 min break around the 75 minute mark.

Except in the breaks, people should turn off their phones, (unless tethered to it for internet) close down any internal messaging channels like Slack or Skype that aren’t relevant to the workshop and do not read email.

All your standard workshop guidelines still apply. People need to actively participate. You need a facilitator to keep the workshop on track and focussed on achieving its objectives. 

Personal presentation – Participants should come to the virtual meeting presented as they would in a face to face meeting. Their image should be professional. Perhaps there is no need for ties unless the workshop involves external parties e.g. clients and customers and their expectation would be to that you wear ties. To be clear t-shirts are out unless t-shirts are the norm.

Pro tip Present yourself as you would for a face to face workshop of this type where your CEO might pop his head in to say hi. Because they might well do that virtually too.

Get feedback

At the end of the workshop allow 5 – 10 minutes to get real feedback from the participants so you can improve the experience for them and hopefully the outcomes for you too. We suggest using an online survey tool for this. Get them to complete an online survey there and then answering these 4 questions

  1. How would you rate the experience overall from 1 to 10
  2. What did you like most about it?
  3. What did you like least about it?
  4. What would you change for future virtual workshops?

Last word on technology

photo courtesy GoToMeeting.com

Video – It’s great to see so many vendors of virtual conferencing tools making their platforms available free of charge at the moment. However, the free platforms offer a very good place to start if you are cash strapped and / or can live with some limited functionality. So you have plenty of choice if your company does not already have a platform it uses. I would start by briefing your friendly IT team and what you are planning to do and asking if they recommend any particular product. Get them bought in to what you are doing so you can ask for their help later if it gets messy.

Audio – Your company or your customers may already have a phone conferencing technology it prefers. In this case you can use this for the audio and the video conferencing for the visuals stuff. Just make sure everyone turns their PC mikes onto mute when using their phones for audio.

Collaboration – If you are working on something collaboratively then having a virtual whiteboard is very useful. This lets everyone contribute to it and for the results to be captured in real time and visualised for everyone on the call. In the same way that using a whiteboard or putting up sticky notes in a face to face workshop works. But this is a virtual version which is of course is saved after the meeting and can be refined and shared instantaneously.

Messaging – We already use a messaging application internally but for this workshop we added a new specific channel and invited all customer participants to it. We used this channel for capturing ideas and comments before, during and after the workshop. We actually now do this by default and create a specific informal communication channel for each project a customer undertakes with us.

I hope that by sharing our experience you are able to run some very successful virtual workshops with a lot less stress. I think their potential is very encouraging and that they may over time replace the practice of face to face workshops completely. A positive out of these incredibly challenging times is that the technology development accelerates and the associated costs become more affordable to small to medium businesses everywhere. Good luck with your next virtual workshop and leave some comments if you have other ideas that would help others out.

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