Workshops are a great way to start or discuss in-depth topics with a small group. Complete focus on one topic and the combined knowledge and experience of all present can accelerate progress.
Anyone who has ever participated in a professionally run workshop knows that this is a lot of work on the part of the facilitator. After all, interpersonal interaction also plays a major role. It is often not easy to activate people and get them to participate.
How can such a format work virtually? The good news: It can. However, a virtual workshop requires even more preparation, planning and also some special features in the implementation and in the distribution of roles. Instead of projectors and flipcharts, a virtual collaboration tool is needed. Participant interaction and engagement also play an even greater role in virtual workshops.
The success or failure of your virtual workshop stands and falls with the preparation.
The smooth functioning of the technology is crucial for virtual meetings: All participants need a fast and stable Internet connection, a screen (or two, depending on the agenda or software), a webcam, and a headset or headphones with a microphone - this helps to block out noise that might otherwise be caused by the speakerphone or a noisy environment.
Make sure that all participants are familiar with the virtual tools you are using so that no time is wasted explaining them during the workshop. If necessary, offer training sessions before the workshop or send out short briefings with links to how-to videos; you could otherwise leave brief space for explaining the tools before the workshop actually begins.
Otherwise, preparing for a virtual workshop is much like preparing for a traditional workshop. Make sure there is an agenda, certain rules and methods are defined and all participants are informed about them.
Finding and keeping the common thread is probably one of the biggest challenges during a workshop - a virtual workshop makes this challenge even greater. That's because participants in a virtual workshop are more easily distracted: by incoming mail, chat messages or the typical influences of the home office.
Keeping virtual participants engaged is a big challenge in three ways:
- Time structure: Timing and adherence to time units, known as timeboxing, should be considered even more carefully for virtual workshops. Plan timeslots for specific tasks, discussions and breaks, and the workshop in general. If possible, we recommend to limit workshops to 3 hours - topics that are facilitated in a one-day workshop in traditional workshops are better split over two to three slots on different days. This ensures better concentration.
- Content structure: A realistic agenda is crucial. It should be defined in advance and, if possible, known to the participants. Explain it briefly at the beginning of the virtual workshop and always make it clear where you are at the moment and what the tasks, questions or priorities are.
- Discussion structure: In a virtual workshop, discussions are even more difficult to manage than usual. All the more reason for the moderator to intervene and ensure that discussions do not stray too far from the topic or the question.
While the roles of moderator and participant are already familiar from conventional workshops, it is advisable to introduce an additional role for virtual workshops: the troubleshooter. The troubleshooter supports the moderator in organizing the processes before and after the workshop, takes care of tools and technology, access for participants, and also provides support during the workshop, where questions and messages are collected and, if necessary, helps participants through 1:1 chat in the event of technical problems with the microphone, sound or image.
The moderator can fully concentrate on the matter at hand. The troubleshooter is, so to speak, a small IT department of its own and keeps the moderator out of technical discussions.
As already mentioned:A virtual workshop can only work with the right tools. These should not only limit themselves to the digital communication tools used in the participant's company: Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Webex - to name just a few. That is just not enough. We also present other useful tools for your virtual workshop:
- Miro App - Miro is an app for virtual collaboration. You can brainstorm together or work out exact processes. You can do pretty much everything a clipboard allows you to do. Only virtually.
- Conceptboard, an alternative from Germany, for all those who value it (or whose IT and compliance department values it).
- Office 365, Google Docs, Google Sheets - the usual suspects offer text documents, spreadsheets and online presentations for collaboration.
- Time Boxing: Experienced presenters will be familiar with the Time Timer. A kind of stopwatch for time boxing - so that time targets are met for all to see. The Time Timer is also available as an app for smartphones and tablets (iOS/Android).
All the tools you use must also find a home: the event platform. This is where you bundle the various workshops, sessions and breakouts into one big event. But not every platform can integrate your favorite tools. Therefore, when choosing, look for flexible integration, such as with the Virtual Event Platform from MATE, where, in addition to the already integrated tools, many more can be added individually for your event.
Find out what the future of virtual and hybrid event tools may look like from MATE CEO Florian Kühne in this recording of our Event Engagement Session:
Although all employees should be physically separated during the virtual workshop, proximity is definitely an important aspect - because it works best when all participants share trust.
To compensate for the lack of physical proximity, it helps to create space for personal conversations. Use "ice-breakers" at the beginning of the workshop, let participants talk about something private (but at the same time) innocuous - such as their dream holiday or a hobby. Even a virtual after-work beer at the end of an afternoon workshop can work wonders.
Virtual workshops are not endless monologues. As explained earlier, it is important that participants are energetic and interactive. You can use all the methods you know and prefer from traditional workshops: short rounds of introductions, question-and-answer games, brainstorming, clustering, or voting.
However, you may need some technical help from, for example, the tools already described. If your workshop group is too large, simply divide the employees into smaller groups and have everyone come together again later.
Visualization is certainly an important part of any workshop, but in a virtual workshop it becomes even more essential. If the participants are not in a room where the agenda is always accessible, it is sometimes difficult to understand which part of the workshop you are currently in.
It is best to visualize both the current item on the agenda, as well as what is being documented and what is being worked on. It can also be helpful if you visualize the timeboxing.
If you are planning a virtual workshop for the first time, it can be helpful to try out the entire setup once per dress rehearsal. First and foremost, the moderator and troubleshooter should be very familiar with the tools. Ask some of your colleagues to test the tools as participants. In this way, you can identify any weak points, but also find out which function of a tool may require more explanation.
You probably recorded the workshop and worked together on virtual documents. Share these documents and the recordings with the participants and don't forget to ask for feedback. This way you will find out what the participants of your virtual workshop found particularly exciting, what was difficult to follow or even which methods and tools were particularly helpful.
You see: A virtual workshop is no magic trick, but it does require some preparation. We hope you find these tips helpful and wish you every success for your next virtual workshop. Do you have any questions or would you like support for your next virtual event? Then contact us at any time!
By Anne Brünnert
Content management freelancer with a preference for digital topics, agile projects and with stage experience.
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