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How to make virtual workshops better than reality

Sticky notes and pens.

How to make virtual workshops better than reality

Here’s my only joke about facilitation:
Q: What’s the difference between a meeting and a workshop?
A: In a workshop you do exactly the same as in a meeting, but on MUCH bigger pieces of paper.

So, what do you do when there’s no paper involved because everyone is working remotely? Having run many virtual workshops on digital workplace strategy over the years, I actually think that, done right, they can be more effective than a face to face event.  Here’s how to make them zing.

Workshop groundwork

The make or break of a workshop begins by being clear about the purpose and outcomes. Your probably read that and went “yeah, yeah”, but I really mean it. Talk about what decisions are going to be made and therefore who really needs to be there so that the decisions stick.

It’s then tempting to invite other people because there’s no travel involved so extra attendees are ‘free’. Resist that temptation – they will detract from the process. Even when everyone is being co-operative, there is a social pressure to let each person have a say. Imagine that the “cost” of every extra person you invite is 20 minutes on the workshop time, then figure out how late you want to stay up.

When people ask “is there an agenda?” what they really mean is “when is the lunch break?”. But agendas are also a valuable way of expressing expectations with the main workshop stakeholders. Take time over this. Usually I have a very detailed agenda behind the scenes (I call it my ‘script’) where I agree the purpose and outcome of each step with stakeholders, then a simplified agenda the everyone sees in advance (with lunch in bold).

Don’t let the tech be a pain in the neck

Put as much effort into your virtual venue as you would when hiring a meeting room. Don’t think that if it is on Zoom or Teams all will be easy. People are so used to regular online meetings now that bad habits are emerging: these habits will be as distracting as if real-life strangers were allowed to wander through your meeting room, and participants always contributed by mumbling into a trash can.

Firstly, ensure everyone has good audio; insist on headsets and if necessary, include an audio bridge so that landlines can be used (even cell phone audio with a headset is better than voice over data usually).

Secondly, avoid any kind of hybrid where some people are in the same room. Insist that each person has their own laptop and space. Don’t let people share a screen, it is poor for both video and audio, and the temptation not to use a headset will be greater.

This leads to the third point: really do encourage video. Those non-verbal cues will be essential for the facilitator to ‘read the room’, and also make it easier to show agreement or dissent without waiting to speak. I get that for home working this can be a challenge, but if possible when scheduling the meeting, ask people for availability at times when they can use video well. Compared to the cost of travelling for a workshop, it may even make sense to rent a co-working space if needed.

Lastly, check that all other tools work OK well ahead of time. For example, if using an online whiteboard, check browser compatibility, firewalls and logins a week in advance.

Give me a break

A recent Microsoft study showed that remote meetings are more fatiguing. So it makes sense to have more regular breaks for that reason, but there’s a second reason that is equally important:

Workshops make breakthroughs during breaks.

Many times in my workshops the group has hit a knotty problem. We’ve stumbled into a long-running feud between departments. Things may have got heated. Someone has withdrawn and looks tense. A casual doodle has the furious sharpie pen-strokes of a woodpecker on amphetamines.

Then, during the break people get into huddles and start to solve things. They maybe test a solution that they weren’t sure they should share. They process another’s point of view more calmly. Some quieter contributors get clarity on an issue that was bugging them but which they weren’t able to put into words under pressure.  

It’s the same with online breaks – perhaps more so as speaking time is precious – so plan on a maximum of 45 minutes work to the hour, and at most three hours per workshop. Just ask people not to do emails or take calls but to really use that time to take a break.

Longer workshops split over two days have advantages too. If people can add to the Day 1 work asynchronously (e.g. adding notes to Trello), you don’t lose momentum during the gap, but actually gain from the extra time to reflect and improve their decisions. I’m not sure day-long workshops were ever the best format, more a side-effect of people having to travel to them.

Starting the workshop

Icebreakers may feel contrived, but they add an element of play that helps people relax. My  team play a game where we all turn away from camera, then come back miming a sport that the others have to guess.

Team video meeting with four people miming a sport.
Virtual icebreaker: guess the sport,

You can also use the icebreaker to get people used to using a new tool. For example, put a pin on a map of a “place you’ve always wanted to go”, or if introducing Trello we get people to seed a vision using product reaction cards.

Encourage side chat 

In workshops there’s a tacit “only one person talking” norm. But in virtual workshops this is more stilted because the audio is a mono-channel. To compensate, I encourage ‘side chats’ – people are not only more involved, but more productive too. Nearly every tool has a text messaging ability that can be used for this. While someone is talking, permit others to be active on the chat. It’s a great way to check understanding, add  background facts, brainstorm ideas, or simply agree (without fumbling for the ‘unmute’ button).

Even cracking a joke in a side chat that would be disruptive over audio makes the whole day more enjoyable. For the devious, in video calls your goal is to use a secret WhatsApp back channel to make your colleague laugh while they are presenting to the boss.

How ever you use side chats, it means multiple people are contributing in parallel. It also gives quieter people – often the introverts and non-native language speakers – a way to participate that they may feel more comfortable with.

Virtual sticky notes

No workshop would be complete without sticky notes. A revelation to me was that tools like Trello and Planner  are much more useful than their paper equivalent. So good that even in face-to-face workshops I’ve started using them. I particularly like Trello because you can @mention people in a note so that they get an alert. This encourages others to build on that note rather than writing their own (for all that normal workshops are notionally collaborative, its pretty common for people to actually pursue their ideas in isolation).

After initial brainstorming, processing the notes can also be easier too. For example, you can immediately duplicate them all so that two groups can rank them independently or use voting buttons to quickly identify popular ideas. Labels too add sorting metadata, so you can code notes by cost, risk or department and instantly re-group them.

Finally – and this is not to be under-estimated – people write far more coherently online than on real paper. I once spent ages trying to figure out why someone had written the sticky-note  “Give people badgers”. It took me a day before I realised they meant “Give people badges”.

Next steps

Every workshop should have a formal ending. Don’t run right up to the hour or people will log off early for their next meeting and miss the finale. Instead, plan formal time to:

  • Recap actions
  • Address parked issues
  • Agree deadlines for actions.

My final tip is that for any workshop it is easy to feel like great progress was made, but for there then to be no follow-up. This seems especially true for virtual workshops, so book a date for a follow-up session maybe 1-2 weeks hence, and keep the momentum going. After all, there’s no paper to transcribe so you can dive straight into the actions.

This article was first published by CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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