I’ve been working as a project manager for more than a decade, leading workshops and meetings for several different companies. What I’ve learned lately is that virtual meetings, relative to in-person ones, is punishing in many unpredictable ways. Surprisingly (to me anyways), virtual events can also be better for several reasons.
Completely transferring the in-person event experience into an online environment obviously isn’t possible. So, let’s reject this idea and focus on how to benefit from the advantages a virtual setting can bring. Based on our experience within Showmax, here are a few tips for your next virtual workshop.
1. Be prepared, plan ahead of time, and practice
Ideally, you should share the agenda as early as possible in the run-up to the workshop, and include it in the workshop invitation so participants can prepare themselves. At the beginning of the workshop, share the agenda and the workshop rules again, and if possible assign a person who will help all of you stick to both.
In a virtual workshop there is very little space for improvisation, as presenters usually share their screen with participants and the session is recorded. And then the micro crises come—you lose internet connection, have to handle audio issues, and more. In short, take care of what you can take care of. Have a clear agenda and work hard to stick to it.
Once you are done with the planning you need to practice, practice, practice. Know the tools you will use and know them well, and spend time on practicing the crucial parts of the workshop. Rehearsing the workshop will also help you to improve all of the workshop materials and adjust the expected time length for each agenda item.
Involve your participants
Share the documents and other materials that you would like them to work with during the workshop and ask them to read all ahead of time. Prepared participants will make for a much smoother show. We usually open a dedicated Slack channel to share anything and everything related to the workshop agenda and schedule, and to collect inputs and questions prior to the discussion.
2. Choose a clear issue to solve
It’s more challenging to create a connection among participants in a virtual workshop, so it’s crucial to choose the workshop topic carefully. Some topics can be sufficiently discussed in 1-on-1 or small groups meeting, some require more intensive group work during a workshop. Organise a workshop for issues that create difficulties for several people across different disciplines so that more participants can share personal experiences and provide examples from real life situations. There you may expect to see a more vibrant group dynamic.
For example, think about outcomes from project post-mortems or retrospectives you’ve worked on before. Were there topics that require more discussion? Were there common issues mentioned by several people? Do you have a long-term issue with no clear solution? All of these are great candidates for highly-attractive workshop topics.
3. Give participants time to test new tools
Share the list of the tools you plan to use during the virtual workshop along with suggested instructional videos explaining the functionalities. Many participants will be using some of these tools for the first time, so don’t just explain what the tool does, create a sandbox for participants and ask them to practice. Thanks to the shared view, novice users will see the tool’s capabilities demonstrated by more experienced participants.
Here at Showmax we use Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet for virtual meetings and workshops. It’s important to establish rules for non-verbal communication, and to have someone monitoring chats at all times. At Showmax we use participants’ reactions, like raised hands, a lot.
Another tool we use for online work is Miro, a virtual whiteboard designed for real-time and asynchronous collaboration. To get the workshop participants familiar with the tool, I put short exercises in the agendas, with links to short instructional videos within the invitation. We then set aside a time slot at the beginning of the workshop devoted to practicing simple tasks. Each participant creates a sticky note and a comment, and gets to understand the app’s menus and tools.
4. Delegate responsibilities
Get people involved in the workshop by giving them a responsibility for particular tasks. Choose a timekeeper, people able to do quick demos and introductions of applications used during the workshop, define who will mark action items, and more. As mentioned above, facilitating a virtual workshop is very demanding, but involving participants makes the role of facilitator much easier. Delegation has the added benefit of driving engagement because even the smallest tasks keep participants engaged with the wider process.
5. Use a timer
Use it all the time, during the whole workshop, for each point of the agenda. During the flow of the workshop itself you and the team need to follow the schedule as closely as possible and keep the sessions in the planned time slots. The timer should be visible for all participants and can be operated by a facilitator or (better) a dedicated timekeeper.
I have had a couple of experiences leading smaller workshops where I started to ignore the timer and allow free flowing discussion. My assumption was that since there were fewer people, we will need less time. That was not a good idea and led to major issues with the run of show. We struggled to wrap things up on time, and it didn’t help the participants as they felt lost by the fact there were no time limits for particular activities.
6. Use breakout rooms
Work in breakout rooms as you would work in small groups during an in-person meeting. Virtual environments make it pretty easy to divide participants into groups. During in-person events, this is one of the most challenging aspects of any event. You need to assign people to different groups, then the groups need to collect members, then find a quiet place to work, and so on.
All of this takes only seconds in virtual workshops using Zoom or Teams. There is an option to assign the participants to the breakout rooms randomly, or choose the group members manually. Still, be sure to “walk around” the rooms and check whether everything is clear and groups are working effectively. Also use a workshop-specific chat room to share any announcements, updates, or other news for all participants.
7. Virtual voting, it just works
One thing that unequivocally works much better in a virtual workshop than in a face-to-face one is voting. Voting in a virtual environment is faster and easier to manage, and there are several tools that help you prepare polls in advance. Here at Showmax we use voting inside the Miro app, but there a bunch of other tools as well.
The facilitator needs to set the voting guidelines and rules, but once the voting is over, all participants get results in seconds. There is no counting, no messing around with sticky notes, and everyone can vote at the same time. It’s a clean and easy solution to give participants the power to decide on the topic they want to proceed with, choose the most important outcome of discussion, or anything else you want to want to engage them on.
It’s natural that people feel disconnected and get easily disengaged in online meetings—for many of us, it’s been a year of virtual conferences and video calls. Working in a virtual, online group inevitably fragments the experience and cuts out some inputs—mainly nonverbal ones—completely. That makes communication more demanding.
It is your role as the moderator to help participants join the workshop ready to go, see the ultimate goal of the session, understand the rules, and follow the timeline. So, work hard on the topic, set your agenda, and make sure to give everybody enough time to learn the tools you will be using. Delegate tasks, use breakout rooms, and use polls and votes to keep your participants engaged. Most of all, try to have fun!