A Lesson in Getting the Best Results from Your Online Workshops
By Dawn McKenzie, Senior Consultant, Inoapps
Working with the University of Edinburgh Change Team on their People and Money Program, we were right in the middle of a series of face-to-face workshops when lock-down happened.
Rather than canceling the remaining sessions, we moved them online using Microsoft Teams. Despite initial concerns about the quality of the experience for participants and their engagement, the feedback for the online sessions has been positive, with several commenting that they preferred the online format as it helped to focus the discussion.
Based on our experience, I’ve set out some key considerations and best practice for online workshops.
1. Know Your Platform
We used Microsoft Teams, but people will be limited to whatever technology is available, so try to make sure you are familiar with the basics before using it to host a workshop. You don’t want a moment of blind panic as you randomly hit buttons, so learn how to control your audio and video, use chat and view participants. And learn how to mute participants - it’s a very useful tool if they haven’t worked it out themselves.
Think carefully about the format, the materials and the timings. It is dull sitting listening to long presentations with no interaction, so try to have regular breaks to allow questions or activities and to let people get away from their screens for a while. Issue a clear agenda in advance, showing the breakdown of topics and the breaks, to allow people to plan their day.
3. Define Clear Roles & Responsibilities for Co-Facilitators
Clarity around these is critical in any workshop, but how they will work online will largely depend on the tool you’re using and the number of people available to help facilitate. If you have multiple presenters and one set of slides, you may need to have an individual who is responsible for progressing the slide-deck.
Another useful role is that of moderator, allowing someone to control the question and answer sessions so the presenters can participate more fully. There are also roles for people to take notes etc., so it’s helpful to set up a separate group chat to allow you to coordinate the session and your activities in the background during the workshop.
4. Managing Kickoff
At the start of the session, take some time to explain the technology basics to anyone who might be unfamiliar – show them how to mute, turn video on/off, access chat etc. As far as workshop etiquette goes, it’s always a good idea to advise everyone to stay on mute unless they need to speak in order to reduce background noise and distractions (this is where learning to control other people’s mute comes in handy).
Video can use up a lot of bandwidth and affect call quality, so think about whether it’s needed and ask everyone to switch it off if required. And, with home-working the new norm, remind everyone that there might be interruptions from children or pets.
5. Use Chat
Online meetings can provide an opportunity to engage with greater numbers of people than would have been possible otherwise. The facilitation of discussion using chat helps to provide a level of control that is often difficult to manage in face-to-face sessions.
Chat tools are great for allowing participants to ask questions as they arise and helping you to manage the discussion, but if you’re presenting, turn off the chat function and your notifications to avoid any distractions.
Take natural breaks for questions and answers – this is where the moderator role is useful as it allows them to manage and track the questions and responses without distracting the presenters from their main role. If further clarification of a point is needed, the participant can be invited to turn on their audio. The other benefit of chat is that it allows you to keep a record of the questions that can be used to help ensure that all appropriate actions are captured and taken forward.
Decide whether you want to allow the chat to continue for a while after the workshop. It may be a useful way to capture additional information, but it may also result in a lot of annoying notifications for people, so be considerate of their time.
6. To Record or Not to Record?
Think carefully about whether you want to record a session. While it can be helpful to have a record of the discussion to allow you to check your understanding or to allow more people to access information, it may discourage people from being open in your discussions. If you do decide to record the session, make sure you let people know in advance.
7. Next Steps
It’s also critical to remember that the purpose of a workshop – online or otherwise - is never the event itself. Make sure you’re clear about next steps and how you will progress actions. Explain how people can provide feedback and questions - and be sure to follow-up as required.
I hope that you find these tips useful in these volatile times.