March 24, 2021

My approach to running online workshops


Natalie in Austin Startup Week

I thrive in face-to-face environments. So, when COVID happened and I suddenly had to deliver client workshops via Zoom, I was in a mad panic. I scrambled to find tools and strategies that would help me replicate the in-person experience. Over time, I tried and tested different tricks for online environments – both for small group workshops with clients as well as big stage events, such as Austin Startup Week 2020 and South By Southwest EDU 2021. Here’s what I learned.

Before the online workshop

For small client-focused workshops, pre-2020, I would create an agenda and hand out hard copies to attendees on the day. But making others look at another ‘piece of paper’ on screen while juggling multiple windows was the last thing they needed. I used to also run workshops for two or more hours quite easily. But online, holding people’s attention for more than 60 minutes wasn’t realistic. I found that streamlining the preparation process was my answer to keeping things short and sharp. I started systemising client workshops by:

  1. Formally requesting the client fill out a workshop brief prior. This document comprised a series of questions relating to business goals, for example, that would equip me with as much background information as possible.
  2. Allocating more time for desk research. This meant the discussion was more about validating my understanding, as opposed to discovering problems from scratch.
  3. Breaking the traditional workshop into two. To start, there’d be one group discussion, then subsequent private chats with individual stakeholders. This approach allowed for everyone to have their say while mitigating Zoom fatigue.

By doing more independent work upfront and tweaking my research into phases, I could scale back timings, but still gain insights for good outcomes.

During the online workshop

We all agree that the hardest thing about online workshops is keeping people engaged. Pre-2020, we could use whiteboards and Post-it notes. We could even get up from our seats and role play in a way that re-energises the room. But online workshops have their limitations. A few tactics I’ve harnessed include:

  1. Ensuring I set the etiquette in the room. This involves a housekeeping speech at the start of every workshop encouraging people to raise their hand or enter a comment in the chat function throughout the meeting. This empowers people to share their input without having to frustratingly wait for cues. 
  1. Designing multiple ways attendees can answer a question – quickly and easily (no umming and erring, please!). These include asking people to provide a ‘show of hands’ if an idea resonates with them, or asking attendees to type in a score (a number) into the chat function to say how much they like/dislike something.
From this session we ran at Austin Startup Week, you can see we are encouraging attendees to score their feelings (high, medium, low) in the chat. This keeps them involved.
  1. Using a mix of online and offline tools. Sure, there are plenty of programs out there like Miro, Mural, Jamboard, and of course, Google Slides, but sometimes it’s just fun to use visual aids. You can literally stand in front of a whiteboard to map things out, or you can prepare some powerful words or questions and hold them up in front of your camera during the session. This is a technique my good friend and co-host Anna Westbrook applied in our recent South By Southwest EDU presentation Make Your Best Practices For Online Collaboration – and attendees absolutely loved it.
Visual aids don’t need to be fancy. They can be fun. Here’a a low-tech prop, Barry the octopus, that “illustrates” the 8 Dimensions of Wellness.
  1. Knowing how many people to put into a breakout room. I’ve found that big group chats are good for sharing concerns. Small group chats are good for sharing learnings. And sometimes no breakout room is best – don’t be afraid to pepper quiet moments of reflection throughout your workshop to give people space to think.

After the online workshop

Exiting a Zoom room can feel like being teleported to another universe. It’s quite sudden; no-one says, “let me walk you out”. With this in mind, I think it’s incredibly important to keep up momentum. To close things out, I always:

  • Follow up with a thank-you email that covers key takeaways, next steps, and slides.
  • Pencil in a review (i.e. four weeks or three months after the workshop) to keep all parties accountable for any changes made as a consequence of the workshop. Issues to raise include what worked well, what didn’t work well, what we can keep doing, and what we should change.

In summary: Adapting isn’t so bad

While I still prefer in-person interactions, there are many benefits to online workshops. I’ve managed to gather people from several time zones in the one virtual space – and more voices at the proverbial table can lead to better outcomes. Also, when recorded, workshops have the power to remind people of the direction they’re moving towards.

I didn’t love online workshops at first, but after trying out new strategies and realising how easy it was to get multiple schedules to align, I was sold. If you’re leading a project and in need of a content expert to get things on track, contact us. We’d love to chat.   

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