Six Easy Tips For Improving Any Virtual Workshop

Six Easy Tips For Improving Any Virtual Workshop
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Nathan Baird (main photo) is the founder of customer-driven innovation and growth firm Methodry and author of Innovator’s Playbook: How to create great products, services and experiences that your customers will love! In this guest post, baird offers his tips to improving your workshops now the pandemic has sent us all to Zoom…

Workshops have historically been about face-to-face collaboration and co-design to create ideas and buy-in to a strategy or solution. If somebody in your team had suggested running a virtual workshop you would have asked them if they were mad!

However, overnight organisations have had to adapt and experiment with their ways of working, including running workshops virtually with dispersed teams. Here are six simple lessons and tips inspired by COVID-19 for improving your virtual workshops.

  1. Your preparation

As the old army adage goes: proper planning and preparation prevents p*ss poor performance.

Technology can make or break virtual workshops so take time to plan and prepare your technology and, importantly, ensure participants know how to use it. You’re going to need a presentation platform with breakout room capacity for example Zoom and a virtual whiteboard platform like Miro or Mural.

We’re only seven-plus months into the pandemic in Australia and New Zealand, so the large majority of the population still aren’t proficient in using the more specialist virtual tools like Miro. I highly recommend you hold a dry run where participants can practice the key activities and tasks – like selecting, placing and writing on a virtual sticky note, in the whiteboard platform. At the end of a workshop is too late to find out that people didn’t know how to record ideas!

  1. Setting the scene

It is really important to set the scene making sure everyone feels welcome, included and important. Some virtual world tips include asking everyone to have their cameras on and microphones on mute. Not only does this make it easier for the facilitators to manage everyone’s state and energy levels, because they can see them, it also encourages the participants to be present and stay engaged.

  1. Manage everyone’s state

By now we’re all familiar with virtual meeting fatigue. Early on in the pandemic I’d limit workshops to a max of 2hrs, but now with more experience and confidence I’ve pushed these right out to 5hrs, but it does take some effort to keep everyone energised and engaged.

First of all a workshop isn’t like an ordinary meeting, so with everyone participating they should naturally be more engaged anyway. Essentially what we’re doing is dialling up what we’d normally do for a face-to-face workshop. For example, during plenary sessions I’m making it as inclusive as possible and really encouraging questions and discussion. We also dial up the fun. Just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean you’re not taking it seriously. Start the workshop with music and welcome people back from breakouts with happy and upbeat music. Further into the sessions you can even incorporate a bit of dress up like wigs to liven things up further.

Breaks are as important as ever. I’m scheduling a 5-minute break on the hour and a 15-minute break every two hours. On the breaks I get everyone to go on mute and turn their cameras off from both a ‘switching off’ and ‘embarrassment safety’ perspective.

  1. Cater to different learning styles

Our virtual meetings tend to be highly auditory, but most people learn and engage visually and kinaesthetically. So don’t forget to mix up your presentation style with lots of visuals and keep them engaged with plenty of interactive breakout exercises.

  1. Facilitate the breakouts

While we are all still learning these new virtual tools I highly recommend you have a facilitator per breakout team or if that isn’t viable at least a nominated virtual whiteboard champion in each team – someone you’ve ‘pre-trained’ and you can trust to guide the breakout team through the exercises and help anyone still having problems mastering the tech. This training is done in the preparation stage.

To further help the breakouts run smoothly instructions need to be even clearer than when working face-to-face. My guiding principle is in times of uncertainty make everything else as clear and certain as possible. When giving instructions also give a demonstration by sharing your screen showing how to do the whiteboard activity. Also put the instructions and examples into the virtual whiteboard, so the participants have self-help close to hand.

  1. Bring your A game

As the facilitator you need to be an amplified you. A bolder, brighter more intense you. Be very conscious of being in the moment and reading the ‘room’, keeping an eye on everyone’s state. Even if you’re working from home keep your standard of dress professional. Wear what you’d normally wear for a workshop; also ensuring you’re comfortable.

These are my top lessons and tips. With some good planning, experimentation and a bit of practice you too will find your own way to move and inspire people virtually.

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Nathan Baird

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