During the current COVID 19 pandemic, virtual workshops has re-emerged. While it had been regarded as somewhat second-choice in the past, it is actually a great way of working together creatively. Just follow seven simple rules for virtual workshops.

Seven rules for better virtual workshops
(Infografik von Gabriele Lebek, CHC)

1. Be prepared for virtual workshops

Select participants – set agenda – choose interactive tool

The basic rule is to transfer best practice from the real world to the online situation. It is vital to limit participants to those who can and will contribute. A concise, jointly agreed agenda clarifies everyone’s expectations.

Choose a conferencing tool that allows everyone to actively participate. Depending on the setting, MS Teams, Skype for Business, WebEx, Sharepoint or similar tools may already be in place. Make sure that everyone has full access to the tool. Try it out thoroughly in advance.

2. Take the online situation into account

Make participants feel welcome – provide tool support – clarify organizational questions

Unlike in face-to-face workshops, where participants get to know each other over a cup of coffee before kick-off, online members usually remain in awkward silence until the event is officially started. So make sure you allow extra time at the beginning to make everyone feel welcome and meet each other. Arrive in the virtual meeting room ten minutes before the start and greet those who are gradually joining you. Take the time to clarify a few questions at the beginning: Is everyone on the same platform? What should I be seeing on the screen? Can I write on the whiteboard myself? How will the chat be used? It also helps to establish basic rules, such as whether the cameras are being used or microphones are being muted.

3. Engage participants

Encourage interaction – use images – include quick surveys

Focus on interactivity from the beginning. You could start with a question about people’s expectations that everyone answers in turn. Try and make it as engaging as possible. Depending on the number of participants, you may want to avoid lengthy introduction rounds and instead ask people to show a picture of their workplace. Use a survey tool if you can, or ask questions such as “How would you rate your previous knowledge of our topic on a scale of one to ten?”. People can answer by simply using the chat function.

Encourage participants to give their input not only via microphone but also on screen. A short brainwriting session on a virtual whiteboard, for example, engages participants and serves as a basis for further discussion. It is important to allow enough time for everyone to become familiar with the conferencing tool.

4. Avoid distractions and fatigue

Switch off distracting devices and programs – take breaks – keep work phases short

Agree on rules that help everyone to focus on what is happening online. Close all programs and windows that are not in use, including Outlook, social media programs and browsers windows. Offer frequent breaks of about 5 to 10 minutes per hour for participants to stand up, open the window, get a coffee, or even take a look at their emails. If participants know when they can expect breaks, they will be able to focus better on what is happening online.

Proceed in clear, concise steps to ensure participants’ attention. No step should last longer than 15 minutes. Always provide orientation as to what agenda point is being dealt with and give clear instructions. Make sure that everyone has understood what they are supposed to do, for example by encouraging people to show a thumbs-up emoji in the chat.

Keep input short. One or two diagrams are good, longer presentations are tiring. Ask others who provide input to be prepared accordingly.

5. Ensure good visualization

Make results visible – plan diagrams or charts – have icons ready

The key to face-to-face workshops is to make work results visible. The same applies to online events. You can sometimes transfer workshop methods from the real world into the virtual arena, such as brainwriting and point scoring. Plan your visualization before the workshop so that you have an idea of the “picture” you are hoping to create at the end. Bear in mind that things may work differently. Think about how you can visualize a mind map, for example, even if you cannot draw online. If necessary, prepare ready-made design elements such as arrows or icons that you only need to drag onto your whiteboard to create clear diagrams.

6. Create a sense of togetherness and community

Take virtual coffee breaks – assign jobs – address participants directly

During face-to-face workshops, stronger connections between participants are often being formed during breaks and shared meals, which is essential for better collaboration. Such a sense of community can also be fostered online. With smaller groups, you can take a virtual coffee break. All get up from their desk to fetch a drink and then re-join the meeting. For the next ten minutes, simply chat with each other, as you would during a “normal” break. With larger groups, you can play a quick interactive game.

Ensure to regularly involve everyone, don’t hesitate to address participants individually. Make sure you allow enough time for them to unmute and answer. Assign jobs to people, such as minute taker or timekeeper. These measures will help the group to “own” the results of their work at the end.

7. All well that ends well

Schedule time for closing – save work results – refer to the beginning

Allow enough time to summarize the results of the group’s work at the end and to reflect on the workshop. Come back to your initial question, ask everyone whether their expectations have been met, which questions are still open, and write down the next steps. If you send a summary (e.g. screen shots) to the participants afterwards, you will give everyone the opportunity to act on the next steps as agreed.

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Barbara Hott

Beraterin für Kommunikation und Change