Making Virtual Workshops Work

by Liz Tufo, June 2020

Workshops, whether in the form of a half-day strategy session, a company-wide offsite or some other configuration, have one thing in common: They represent an opportunity for a group of people to come together in real time — to establish connections, share information, generate solutions, and achieve clear objectives. When done well, they are more than just meetings — they are highly structured, interactive, rewarding, and dare I say, fun!

Here at The NemetzGroup, workshops are our bread and butter. We employ them regularly to engage client teams in a process that brings out the best a committed, experienced, smart group of professionals has to offer.

But what now?

With in-person gatherings off the table for the foreseeable future, we have had to shift, practically overnight, to their virtual cousin. It hasn’t been easy. There have been many surprises (and a few glitches!) over the past several months, as we continue to experiment with different approaches and gain new insights along the way.

Three Recent Vignettes

In recent months, our team has been tasked with finding new and innovative ways to engage in client workshops. Three examples summarized below, illustrate the challenges faced…

Client #1: Small, newly formed team.
Objective: Sharing information and prioritizing a variety of initiatives and plans.
Situation: Leadership needed to align on priorities. Pre-COVID, these sessions were held as half-day, offsite events, with each scheduled speaker presenting a plan, followed by group discussion and agreement on priorities.

New, Virtual Implementation:

  • Presentations distributed prior to live sessions.
  • Predeveloped templates provided structure for capturing insights and plans, reduced fatigue in both prep and viewing.
  • Workshop broken into two parts held on different days. Part one: presentations; part two: facilitated dialogue.

Client #2: Large group, facing an urgent problem in need of cross-functional attention.
Objective: Overcoming a significant drop in demand and logistical difficulties directly resulting from COVID-19.
Situation: This team sells a product used daily in hospitals. Demand dropped drastically as elective hospital care came to a standstill.

New, Virtual Implementation:

  • Four-hour Zoom meeting with heavy utilization of breakout rooms.
  • Facilitated discussions, sharing real-time insights.
  • Polling and breakout sessions to prioritize issues and identify potential solutions and action plans.
  • The NemetzGroup facilitated as the single point for information gathering, sharing insights, support across teams, and rapid development of next steps.

Client #3: All-company offsite.
Objective: Critical long-range planning; group cohesion.
Situation: Plans for an in-person, hotel-based offsite were shuttered. Initial disappointment led to excitement regarding possibilities to take the meeting online.

New, Virtual Implementation:

  • A mix of full group sessions and self-managed time blocks.
  • Outside production company engaged in developing prerecorded video presentations of key internal leaders for viewing during self-managed time; custom landing page provided easy access to all interactive meeting content.
  • Heavy use of Smartsheet surveys in connection with each video presentation; input monitored and shared in real time. (Better than Post-it Notes!)
  • “Patient Chat” with a clinical trial participant, including live Q&A.

What We Learned

I held my breath through some hiccups and added a few moments to our highlight reel along the way. We know much more today about running a virtual workshop than we did just three short months ago. I skimmed the best for you below:

1. Remember the Basics

Clarify and communicate objectives.

This is more important than ever. Developing and sharing objectives from the very beginning allows the workshop to be tailored in a thoughtful and creative way. If you neglect this, you are destined to waste time and frustrate participants.

Complete background work offline.

Condensing the time on Zoom is critical — attention and energy wane much more quickly when staring at a screen. In example #1 above, we leveraged pre-reads; in example #3, we gave participants the freedom to do work when they wished, within the structure of a day-long session.

Offline time also gives people the flexibility to absorb information in whatever way works best for them, whether that means rewinding a video, reviewing slides, or jotting down notes to prepare for an upcoming discussion.

Rehearse.

Not only do you need to be fluent in the tools at hand, you’ll also want to practice presentation handoffs, transitions in and out of breakouts, incorporating additional media, etc., before the live event. When you remove eye contact and the ability to have a quick sidebar conversation, you need to compensate with more preparation. Rehearsing will also help you control time, minimize dead air, and keep the group energized.

2. Leverage Technology, New and Old

Use the tools available.

In example #2, we leaned heavily on Zoom breakout rooms to relieve the fatigue of large group video discussions. The inclusion of polls and surveys in examples #2 and #3, allowed more detailed and thoughtful contributions from those who may be less comfortable speaking up in traditional settings. The use of Smartsheet, in example #3, allowed us to gather, synthesize, and share input in near real time, giving all participants a voice.

In addition to digital tools, the traditional becomes even more important: a simple framework to capture insights, a graphic to highlight timelines, a thoughtfully crafted pre-read.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

When you switch to online, everything feels new — new technologies, new formats, and an overall loss of control in managing the space, the conversation, and the participants. For someone like me, who thrives on precision, it can be unnerving.

I quickly learned to loosen up and adjust, realizing that this is an opportunity to evolve the “way we have always done things” and that we are in a period where there is, thankfully, much forgiveness. In example #2, the first time we went to breakout rooms, a cell phone participant was temporarily lost in cyberspace. In another instance, we lost the sound for a key presenter.

Tech glitches, barking dogs, and needy toddlers (don’t remind me) are all part of the mix now. Learn from it.

3. Take Creative Risks

Think outside the meeting box.

When the client in example #3 had to reconsider its offsite, I knew that two solid days of Zoom would be a dealbreaker. So, we reimagined the day, recommended reallocation of the investment from hotel space to a production team, and focused on the most critical and inspiring topics (e.g., hearing from a patient).

Further, now the team has a video package that can be used to both onboard new employees and remind others of the organization’s mission and thought process. We intend to make prerecorded video a standard element of workshops, whether through a production company or more informally with handheld video.

All of these strategies functioned to bring teams “together” without simply mimicking the tried and true offline approaches. Was it perfectly smooth? Nope. I didn’t exhale until it was all over. But now that we’ve done it successfully, I am better prepared for the future and have new skills and understanding to incorporate, regardless of where COVID-19 leads us.

Don’t neglect the human factor.

Offline, informal interactions are what make workshops sizzle. You meet new people and reconnect with old friends, from different locations, divisions, and organizations. These things tend to happen organically, while taking a walk at lunch, being placed in a breakout group, or having a drink at the bar at the end of the day.

In the virtual world, if you don’t plan for this explicitly, it won’t happen. For instance, in example #1, we introduced icebreakers in which people were asked to do a mini “vision board” as prework that was then shared in small groups. In example #3, we held a trivia contest about team members during breaks.

It’s not so much the specifics that matter, so long as we create the opportunity to connect outside of the work at hand.

Final Thoughts

Sue has reminded the team often over the past few months — while many things have changed in terms of “the how,” the objectives, and yes, the opportunities are there as before.

And while the path to get where we are going may be a little bit different, this is our new reality. To keep pace and succeed, we will need to keep learning, experimenting, and adjusting. Just as we always have.


Posted in All Categories, Decision-Making and Process, Other, Strategy and Planning