Virtual: Not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.
Workshop: A meeting at which a group of people engage in intensive discussion and activity about a particular subject or project.
A virtual workshop is a meeting where groups engage in intensive discussion and activity -- over software -- about a particular subject or project. That about sums it up. Right?
In early March of last year, we were planning a 2-day in-person workshop to build personas for a client. We had completed an extensive empathy phase, with dozens of immersion interviews to review and analyze. We wanted to showcase our efforts, and collaboratively start creating the personas.
Our team had planned every second of the workshop -- from when we would start, activities we would engage, our artifact gallery (videos, posters and transcripts), food, breaks and prizes. We were fully prepared.
Then it happened... Our client went on lockdown. All personnel moved to working remote. KS&R soon followed.
Could we save our workshop? Of course, we could. We just had to figure it out and we did not have a lot of time to do it. Here are some lessons we learned along the way:
- Don't limit the engagement because you are virtual. You can do just about everything you want to do in-person, but do it via software. That includes playful icebreakers, breakout sessions, engaging activities, output sharing and even taking polls. We did not try to condense the workshop in any way. It was still 2 days.
- The workshop has to be on a video platform. Your workshop participants will hide if you give them the chance. Admit it. We have all done it -- not pay attention on a long boring conference call, and drift off to scanning the internet or checking emails. When you force everyone onto video, there is less room to hide and more energy to participate. And in our new world, video is the new "in-person," giving everyone a chance to be together.
- Just because the workshop is virtual does not mean that everything has to be virtual. We sent a full binder of information to our participants -- a workbook with discussion questions, reference materials from immersion interviews, selected quotes and profiles, transcripts, persona templates, etc. Many of our participants did not have access to a printer in their remote environment and appreciated the physical copies. A shout out to FedEx Office for making the whole printing and distribution process so easy, which we greatly appreciated.
- Even so, virtual access to materials is also important. Some prefer everything virtual, and everyone needs access in case there are any last minute changes that you simply cannot make in time to ship.
- Preparation means that you do a trial run. These technologies can be intimidating. Moreover, with so many moving parts, you must think through lots of different scenarios in order to keep the workshop moving. Practice all of your activities. Are your instructions clear? Anticipate issues and responses for the unexpected. For example, what will you do if your facilitator's internet service goes out during the workshop? Easy answer... always have two facilitators (session co-hosts) in two different locations for any virtual workshop.
- It also means that you prepare your participants for what it looks like. Be sure everyone tries out the technology platform ahead of time -- it will save you from many interruptions and headaches during the workshop itself. Let them know that everything will not be smooth -- with this many people on a software platform doing multiple different activities there are bound to be a few hiccups along the way.
- Add in breaks where you can, and definitely allow for sufficient time at lunch. When remote, you do not have the luxury of bringing in lunch for everyone. Your participants need time to get away, make their own lunch, eat it and then come back to the workshop.
- And finally, even though we said that you can do just about everything virtually that you want to do in-person, let's be honest, even the best virtual workshops are only going to get you about 85-90% there. Most already understand these limitations, and appreciate your honesty about them.
Our hard work, professionalism and preparation paid off. The client was extremely pleased, and we have successfully moved multiple other projects to virtual because of this success.
During these times, business questions must still be answered. Don't overthink it. Virtual workshops are one way to generate both better understanding and better decisions.