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3 Tips for Running a Successful Virtual Workshop

The ability to run effective virtual workshops and working sessions is now an essential skillset.

January 11, 2021

The world of work has changed, forever. The Covid-19 pandemic has altered our perceptions and expectations for how and where we work and, as a result, this year we can expect to see a 300% increase in remote work from pre-Covid levels. According to Forrester’s Predictions for 2021 guide, a large number of the workforce is now expecting a more strategic, less haphazard and more permanent approach to remote working, “rather than an exception-driven remote-work policy”. And so, it has never been more important to develop the skills for effective remote work. The ability to run effective virtual workshops and working sessions is now an essential skillset.

I believe that the future of work is a hybrid between remote and onsite. And, our challenge now is to move away from operating in a reactive, survival mode and make sure that the future of collaboration doesn’t get defined by the technology packages available or copy-pasted from the in-person working session. This is why I wanted to share what I learned in 2020 about one of the future-ready skills that I believe all of us need to have in our toolbox - how to run virtual workshops.

Like most of us, prior to March 2020, I only did in-person workshops. The Covid-19 pandemic changed that. Over the last 10 months, I’ve designed and led virtual workshops focused on AI Ethics with nonprofit and private sector participants from all over the world, launched and run a virtual Task Force for UNICEF, and led development of two chatbots with NGOs in Africa and Microsoft. All with a combination of Miro and a video conferencing tool as the core tech tools, and lots of planning, testing, and iteration.

My journey with virtual workshops was aided by the many who generously shared their tips, ideas, and learnings with me, either directly or via how-to blog posts, demos and videos. Now, I want to share three tips to help you get started with virtual workshops in 2021.

1. It’s all in the preparation

Virtual workshops can be an effective and efficient way to bring people across your organization or even across the globe together to learn and collaborate on solving a problem. With a virtual workshop, you can reach and engage more people and make progress in your projects, but only if you prepare for it.

To make virtual workshops effective and engaging, start by developing a clear structure - goals, target audience, agenda, outcomes. By methodically planning and designing your workshop, you have a better chance at creating an environment of trust and collaboration in a virtual setting.

Here are two tools I’ve found helpful:

  1. Create IDOARRT. I recommend you start by defining IDOARRT for the whole workshop as well as any longer segments (eg hands-on breakouts). IDOARRT is a tool from Hyper Island and it stands for: Intention, Desired Outcome, Agenda, Roles and Responsibilities, Rules and Time. I share IDOARRT with the workshop participants at the start of the workshop or segment that requires IDOARRT (eg a breakout) to orient them and get everyone on the same page.
  2. Develop a Facilitator's Guide. For virtual workshops, especially if you have breakouts and multiple facilitators, I recommend developing a Facilitator’s Guide which maps out every few minutes of the workshop and key talking points. This will help you deliver a consistent and complete message, and keep you (as the facilitator) accountable to the set time. Here is an example of a Facilitator’s Guide I created for NetHope.
Example: IDOARRT I developed for the breakout segment in NetHope’s ‘AI Ethics for Nonprofits’ workshop

Once you have IDOARRT and a draft of your Facilitator’s Guide, I strongly recommend doing a dry run with a few colleagues to get their feedback so you can improve the flow and content before doing a workshop with a larger group.

2. Choose the right tools

One of the obvious benefits of virtual workshops is that the whole world opens up - we’re no longer limited to a group that has the ability and means to travel to the same location. To make the global working session truly effective for all involved, it’s important to choose tools that are simple, inclusive, and broadly available.

In a virtual setting, I use a combination of video, voice, chat, and whiteboard collaboration tools that provide all participants with opportunities to contribute and participate.

The good news is, there are a variety of communication and collaboration tools out there (eg Zoom, Teams, Miro, Mural, Rocket.Chat, etc). The important first step is to find the tools that cater to your group’s work styles and are inclusive of different learning and collaboration styles and contexts (digital literacy, connectivity), and to design your communication to be human-centric. Tools need to be simple (to learn and use) and flexible (in terms of what you can do with them).

I like to use Miro for collaboration and Zoom for video, voice, and chat.

Over the past 10 months, Miro has become a critical part of my toolbox for virtual collaboration. I’ve used it for collaborative brainstorms, to map out personas and user journeys, for strategic planning, project retrospectives, and team stand-ups - and with participants from all over the world (Togo, Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania, Switzerland, Finland, US, UK, etc), most not knowing anything about Miro prior to the workshop.

Here are three things I always do when I use Miro:

  1. Design a collaboration space. In preparation for a workshop or a working session, I design a ‘space’ for collaboration by mapping out key segments of the session following a particular flow and laying out all engagement tools and resources that will be needed during the live session (eg Post It notes, dots for voting, key definitions). Remember to lock the segments of the Miro board that you don’t want the participants to move by accident (select each object and use the Ctrl/Cmd+L shortcut).
  2. Provide a demo and short practice. In the workshop, I recommend doing a quick demo of the key features of Miro that the participants need to know in order to contribute and to give them an opportunity to immediately practice using those features - eg use Post It notes to introduce themselves (name, organization, location, favorite food). For a short demo of Miro functionalities, see pages 7 and 8 in NetHope’s ‘AI Ethics for Nonprofits’ Facilitator’s Guide.
  3. Keep time and move everyone along from one segment to the next in your collaboration space so you can cover all the content and end on time. As a facilitator, I like to use Time Timer.
Example: Collaboration space I designed for a breakout session in NetHope’s ‘AI Ethics for Nonprofits’ workshop, also posted here.

Miro is just one of the many tools that are available for virtual collaboration today and you may find other tools that are more appropriate for your workshop and participants, or decide to use no whiteboard tools and still have an effective and engaging virtual session. The point here is to be intentional about what tools you choose to use to create the most effective collaboration space for all.

3. Make participation and collaboration a priority

It’s easy to assume that the same methods we use to collaborate in person can be copy-pasted into a virtual world. According to new research by London South Bank University (LSBU), communication via video calls is more tiring than other forms of digital communication. It’s easier to get bored and distracted in a virtual setting. So, when designing a virtual workshop, it’s important to keep in mind that participating remotely is not as engaging and exciting as attending an in-person workshop and it’s your job as the workshop facilitator to create a space for participants to learn, process, retain, and remember information.

I suggest you get creative with the workshop flow and adapt your facilitation approach for virtual engagement.

Here are four things to consider:

  1. Make it about people. I like to use the first few minutes to get to know the participants. I suggest assigning a color Post It note to each participant and asking them to quickly (in 1 min) write their name, organization and location, plus share their favorite food, favorite movie, or favorite type of holiday - and then share this with the group. Remember to engage with participants, be kind and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn and contribute in their own way.
  2. Keep it short, concise, and exciting. Select only key information to present live and provide the rest as a pre-read or post-workshop resource. Break the workshop into shorter, thematic segments (eg 15 mins) and have different speakers present. For an example, check out the agenda on pages 5 and 6 in the NetHope ‘AI Ethics for Nonprofits’ Facilitator’s Guide.
  3. Diversify the participation mode. One-size-fits-all does not work for remote collaboration. I suggest designing the engagement to cater to different kinds of participants (eg introverts and extroverts). For example, provide time to read, reflect and write quietly, time to discuss and hear different perspectives, etc. Making engagement more diverse will help involve everyone and lead to better outcomes for the collective experience.
  4. Get practical. Provide time and space for participants to practice applying new information and connecting it to their own knowledge and experience. I suggest doing this in smaller groups. Using breakout functionality in Zoom or Teams, divide the workshop participants into groups of 5-8, either automatically or manually (based on participants’ sector/interests etc). Provide a relevant case study for participants to read and reflect on quietly by responding to a set of prompts (ie questions) in writing. It’s important to give everyone enough time to digest the information and respond to it in the form of Post It notes before opening it up for a group discussion to ensure that everyone gets to participate and contribute. Discuss as a group, vote on the key takeaways, and ask for a volunteer to present the takeaways in the main room.

If you just take one thing away from this post, let it be this: don’t wait for perfect, just get started, learn, iterate based on the feedback, and share. Virtual collaboration is here to stay. Now is the time to learn how to make it better.

What tips do you have for running effective virtual workshops?

If you are interested in learning more about how to design and run virtual workshops, please email me.

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