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Digitization and technology continue to change the ways we live, work and learn. In 2020, the pandemic unexpectedly pushed us into the world of virtual meetings and workshops, as it became necessary to pursue our work. Still more people work remotely than ever before, and the future of the work is likely to change permanently. Saving cost, time, and carbon emissions involved in physical travel, virtual collaboration is here to stay. In-person meetings and workshops will be forced to move online, and it becomes more important than ever to understand the changes in agenda and activities, workshops dynamics and tools used.


 

What is a virtual workshop? And what is the role of a digital facilitator?



A virtual workshop takes the fundamentals of a face-to-face workshop and replicates the experience in an interactive online session that is conducted remotely. This means everyone will have to use video conferencing software in order to participate. Depending on the type of session, additional collaboration tools might be needed.


Virtual workshops can have the same goals as their face-to-face counterparts, but in addition they are centered around bringing a group of people together and enabling them to collaborate, share and create together. This is where a virtual workshop facilitator or digital facilitator comes in. They design and lead activities to help the group do their best thinking together and reach a common goal using digital tools. When approached properly, and with the right tools, virtual workshops can be just as effective as their in-person counterparts. If you want to learn how to facilitate an online workshop step-by-step, check out my blog article on digital facilitation.



Types of virtual sessions


The way the workshop participants are located will affect how they interact in the workshop. It can be broken down into three formats:




  • Split setup: two or more co-located teams at different geographical locations

  • Hybrid setup: one co-located team and remote participants

  • Remote setup: every individual participant is remote


As a digital facilitator, you need to consider the participant setup when you plan your agenda and activities. Your goal is to create a (virtual) environment, where everyone can contribute. So it might make sense to have everyone dial in, even if some of the participants are in the same office building.


You might also want to think about the collaboration mode which can be:




  • Synchronously: all participants meet at the same time

  • Asynchronously: individual participants collaborate and contribute on different occasions, usually from different geographical locations / remote


You can also make use of this by pushing some activities to before and after the workshop. Ask yourself “What can be done asynchronously?”  to get the maximum value out of the “together-time” in the actual workshop.



What makes a good virtual workshop?



You want to deliver an amazing and engaging online workshop? Great! Let’s first have a look at the key elements of an in-person workshop:


People


At the heart of a successful workshop are people. Building a culture of innovation takes collaborative, diverse, and empowered employees who seek empathy for their colleagues, customers, and end-users.


Process


“Discover, Design, Deliver” is the process that gets you to the root of the problem and leads you through both: problem finding and problem solving. In “Discover” you will create a common understanding, gain insights into the problem, and decide where to set the focus. In “Design” you brainstorm potential solutions, get feedback and iterate until you finally can “Deliver” solutions that are desirable, feasible, and viable.


Place


The workshop environment must facilitate collaboration and encourage the participants to take risks with a “fail early & fail often” mentality.


The truth is that all three key elements are still valid in the world of virtual workshops while the “Place” no longer refers to a physical place but an online space. Nevertheless, you need to create an environment of collaboration and trust to make a virtual workshop engaging and effective. Therefore, preparing for a virtual workshop means first of all thinking beyond the tools. Start by developing a clear structure around goals, participants, agenda and expected outcomes. After that you can think about the adequate digital tools that fit your purpose.




Benefits of a virtual workshop


Virtual workshops are not just an unavoidable alternative to getting together in person. They are a viable format on their own with a lot of benefits. Here are five examples:


 



Save money and time


Onsite workshops involve numerous costs as, for example, travel, catering including lunch and snacks, venue booking, and office supplies. However, you can save all these costs by switching to a remote setting. This also makes the session more accessible for people who don’t have the resources to travel. In addition, you lower the environmental impact. Carbon emissions associated with travelling and hotels are removed completely and so you save a lot of paper by using online virtual post-its 😉



More flexibility in scheduling


The length of uninterrupted time required for a classical day long workshop makes it complicated to secure time with all required participants. And if it involves travelling, it gets even more difficult as people must give up additional time at work or with their family. With virtual workshops, however, you only need to carve out the duration of the event on your calendar. In addition, you can split the virtual workshop into smaller sessions that are easier to schedule.




No limit to the number of participants


Onsite workshops are often limited either by cost involved or by the size of the room. When leveraging a digital format there is no limit when it comes to involving a large number of participants. However, you also need to scale up the number of facilitators to make sure everyone works towards the same outcome. Please also be aware that some of the digital tools used might have an upper limit when it comes to number of collaborators.




Make every voice heard


Have you ever been in a meeting with a dominant participant and everyone else sits in silence? Digital workshops make it easy for everyone to take part. In a virtual setting, you can offer participants various communication channels to voice their opinion, e.g. writing, drawing, pictures, and video. You can also create breakout rooms with a small number of participants which make people feel more comfortable and encourage them to discuss their ideas. When it comes to voting, the peer pressure that exists often influences the result. Because the digital setting allows for anonymity, you will get more honest results.



Easy post-production and follow-up


After an onsite workshop, the facilitator is usually tasked with the time-consuming job of converting all physical outputs like whiteboards, flip charts, and sticky notes into a consolidated set of documentation. With digital workshops, there is little to no time spent on post-production because all artifacts are already digital. They can just be sent to the participants along with the recording and slides.



Increased reusability


In an onsite workshop, it can be hard to create physical templates that can be re-used in the future. When you are working virtually, however, you can easily create virtual artifacts for future use. This can either help scaling the same workshop with more participants or setting up the next workshop faster.




Top 3 Challenges in a virtual workshop – and how to overcome them



Tech Challenges: Ensure everyone understands the tools


Virtual workshops rely on tools to make interaction possible. If participants feel uncomfortable with the technology used, they will most likely participate less and get distracted more easily – or in the worst case they leave the workshop and do not participate at all. Therefore, it is key to carefully select the tools. If you are not sure which tools to pick, ask your customer what they use or prefer. There might also be some technical constraints, so it makes sense to test access to tools before the workshop. When it comes to using the tools, dedicate some time in the workshop to explaining the most important features. If you are short on time, you might also offer a pre-workshop session. For troubleshooting issues during the workshop consider a co-facilitator or a tech support person.



Losing attention: Make virtual workshops engaging


Positive energy throughout the workshop is key to keeping the participants engaged and securing support for the outcomes. But in a virtual setting, it becomes more difficult to secure commitment as there are many distractions around. Therefore, it is important to integrate opportunities for participation throughout the session. As you kick off the session, begin with a virtual “round-the-table”. This allows everyone to introduce themselves and also get to know the virtual tools. Promote continuous interaction throughout the workshop by asking the participants for their experience or opinion. This does not need to be very formal. Make use of the possibilities that the virtual environment provides to you. You can ask for their input verbally or in the chat. Use webcams for nonverbal communication, e.g. thumbs-up or hand raise for voting. You can also ask them to do a poll. Make sure you give your audience enough time to respond to your questions. Creating smaller breakout groups to communicate and discuss also fosters people staying engaged in the process.



Lack of visual feedback: Turn the cameras on


The visual feedback that we take for granted in face-to-face workshops is more difficult to achieve in an online setting. Asking the audience to turn on the camera can be very tricky. Of course,    you cannot force the participants to use video, but still there is a few things you can do. Let them know in advance, that you are expecting them to go on video, so people can be “camera-ready” and make sure their technical setup works. Kicking-off the workshop, ask everybody to turn on their camera and explain why it is important for the workshop. Peer pressure can also work wonders as everyone will want to appear attentive and engaged. So make sure that at least all your internal colleagues or teammates go on camera to get the ball rolling.



Virtual Workshop Platforms and Tools: How to host a virtual workshop?


Not another tool! While tool fatigue is very common, we rely on digital tools to make an online session work. So there is no way around them. Fortunately or unfortunately - there are plenty of tools out there to choose from. They vary in their capabilities. Therefore, the first step is to think about the kind of interaction that you need in your workshop. Do you just want to talk and screenshare your presentation? Or do you need people to interact and collaborate on an online whiteboard as if they were in the same room? How do you want to share content and store files? Do you need to build a community to stay connected in between multiple sessions? Will there be breakout rooms throughout the workshop? The answer to questions like these will guide the tool selection. As said, there are many options but here a few popular ones broken down into categories:




  • Video Conferencing, e.g. Zoom or Microsoft Teams

  • Online Whiteboards, e.g. Mural or Miro

  • Survey Tools, e.g. Qualtrics or Google Forms

  • Participant Engagement, e.g. Mentimeter or Slido

  • File Storage and Document Sharing, e.g. Microsoft OneDrive or Dropbox


Whatever tool you choose, be aware that as facilitator you need to be comfortable with each tool and also be able to guide your workshop participants on how to use them and how to troubleshoot issues.



Conclusion


In my role as Innovation Manager, collaborative meetings and workshops are part of my day-to-day job. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was forced to go all remote and switch to virtual environments for collaboration. I started using Zoom for video conferencing and Mural as online whiteboard. Thorough preparation helped me a lot. I used to jot down the workshop agenda and templates I wanted to use on paper or on my iPad and shared it with other colleagues to get feedback before I built the final template in Mural. Make sure to check out my blog articles on storyboarding and sketchnoting if you are interested in visual communication.


Though it started as a temporary workaround, I meanwhile value the convenience of virtual workshops and also seeing some benefits, e.g. visually collaborating with international colleagues or saving CO2 emissions by avoiding unnecessary travel. For me, the future meeting culture will be hybrid. There are some activities for which online meetings are likely to become the preferred mode of delivery. This will help us to get the maximum out of the time we have together in in-person meetings. A future-proof Innovation Manager needs to be able to handle both, in person as well as virtual sessions. But this is not the end. Immersive technologies like Virtual Reality will heavily influence the way we work in the future – and most likely also how we collaborate!


What is your opinion? What will the future of business meetings look like? When we have a choice, will we choose virtual meetings over in-person encounters? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


Follow me for more content on Innovation Management, Visual Facilitation and Corporate Storytelling.