Plan an online workshop

The good thing up front – you don’t have to worry about cookies or drinks for your participants. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need preparation for a virtual workshop. A virtual workshop can be very intense and exhausting. At the same time, it offers the opportunity for people from different parts of the world to work together on one topic. In this blog series we would like to tell you something about planning and conducting virtual workshops. To do so, we will again accompany Mia on her way to create a new open-source video chat program.

Workshops live from the interaction of their participants. Therefore, it must also be possible to actively participate and communicate virtually. The following points can help you to make your virtual workshop a success.

Video chat – a must for a successful workshop

We realized that an audio chat is not enough for an intensive exchange. Each of the participants should have a webcam and turn it on. When communicating, people use more than just speech. As workshops can be very intense, it is important to offer as many communication channels as possible, including facial expressions and gestures. This way you avoid misunderstandings and in addition the participants stay more focused. Clarify in advance whether each participant has the technical equipment and explicitly point this out in your invitation.

Setting rules

Keeping all participants on topic is especially challenging in a virtual workshop. There are many sources of interference that are easier to turn off in an on-site workshop. The cell phone or e-mail, to name just two. On-site, it is possible to agree not to use electronic devices and, if necessary, not to bring the devices with you to the workshop. Experience shows that such a rule is often accepted by all participants and a “violation” is usually addressed and clarified directly in the group. Rules of conduct should also be established in a virtual workshop. These rules work best when they are developed by the group itself. It is best to include this point well at the beginning of your workshop. Rules can therefore vary from group to group. And what works well for one group may not work well for all. Group size also plays an important role. For example, for a small group it may not be required to speak only after hand signals – but it is necessary to let each other finish.

Handling rule violations

It is more difficult to notice a “rule violation” virtually. All participants are sitting in front of the computer and may receive chat messages or e-mails quite automatically. Try to suggest technical aids to help participants “protect” themselves from distraction. For example, is it possible to hide chat messages from other channels during the workshop? Can the cell phone be turned on silent and placed out of reach? If you as a workshop leader or participant have the feeling that a participant is distracted, speak to him or her directly. For example, ask if everything is okay because he or she hasn’t said anything for a while, or ask if a short break is desired – especially if several participants are getting restless or seem distracted. Consider in advance how you will deal with “rule breakers.” It is important that your participants do not lose their face when you draw their attention to a “rule violation”.

Selection of participants

Another important point is the selection of participants. A workshop thrives on diversity of views, opinions, and expertise. For an effective exchange, however, the size of the group is crucial. Therefore, consider in advance who you absolutely need for your workshop and keep the group as small as possible.

Planning – an important basis

Plan your workshop. This includes a goal (see Defining goals), an agenda including a time frame, an introduction round (if not everyone knows each other), a summary including reflection on the goals and, above all, breaks! From experience, breaks are not only often forgotten in the planning, but also often shortened or cancelled during the workshop in favor of longer discussions. Do not do that! Without breaks you will lose your participants. They get irritated, are more easily distracted, or simply disappear from the workshop. No matter what, plan plenty of breaks and keep them, because a virtual workshop is intense and requires a lot of concentration from all participants. For this very reason, you should also think about how many hours per day the workshop should run. Our experience shows that it is more effective to split a workshop over several days. Instead of an 8-hour workshop, we recommend 2 days with 4 hours each. Your participants will work more effectively, and the extra break overnight can produce interesting and helpful findings.

Method selection and use

Think about which collaboration methods you want to – and can – use. There are virtual whiteboards, flip charts – which you can create in advance, brainstorming programs and much more. Also try to avoid PowerPoint in virtual workshops, participants tend to see you as a referent and reduce their own participation. We will introduce you to a few examples of virtual collaboration in one of the next articles and briefly explain the virtual implementation. However, it is important that you think in advance not only about the selection, but also about the technical realization and how your participants can actively participate. This can also include additional hardware such as an electronic pen. Plan to spend some time in advance to get familiar with the methods and hardware and test them in your virtual working environment. When you use a method in the workshop, don’t forget to explain it in advance and describe how your participants can contribute.

Get participants involved actively

The active integration of your participants is an important aspect, not only in virtual workshops. Think in advance about how you can involve less active participants. For example, ask directly for feedback or opinions. Try to restrain people who are very active to give quieter participants the opportunity to get involved. This is challenging in a virtual environment because people often fall into a “listening mode” in front of the screen. A good way to generate participation is to ask open-ended questions. Think in advance about how to ask open-ended questions; for example, while brainstorming, “What other aspects of … can you think of?” And once you’ve asked the open-ended question, use the “power of silence.” Do not answer yourself! Don’t go over the question! Just wait quietly, eventually someone will respond.

Ask for feedback

Finally, don’t despair! Running virtual workshops is very challenging and there is always something that you didn’t foresee happening. Don’t get discouraged if something doesn’t go well, participants are dissatisfied, or workshop goals aren’t met. Actively ask for feedback at the end, directly address what went well and where there is room for improvement. Ask how your participants would have done. And incorporate these points into your next preparation. If not, all workshop objectives have been met, reflect in the group whether you have come closer to the objectives or can derive important insights from the session.

Can I be a participant and workshop leader in one person?

In smaller groups, it can happen that you, as the workshop leader, are also a participant. In this dual role, it is important that you behave as you expect your participants to behave. Also, be clear about when you are acting as a participant and when you are acting as a workshop leader. Simple sentences like “in the following I will guide you through the brainstorming” or “as a participant the following behavioral rule is still important to me, how do you think about that?” are sufficient.

The practical case study

In the last article, Mia has already dealt with her goal and a rough planning (see former blog posts). In the process, she noticed that she was missing important key competencies, e.g., in marketing. She told some friends about her idea and two of them want to actively participate. Zou in marketing and Peter would like to help with programming and finds community management very exciting. She spoke to both on the phone since Mia lives in another city. Both have already brought up many of their own ideas on the phone, which is why Mia has decided to take a step back and initiate a joint workshop in which the three of them discuss and determine the possible features. A common date is quickly found, and so Mia sets about preparing the virtual workshop.

The goal of the workshop

First, Mia thinks about a goal for the workshop. She uses the SMART goal definition (see Defining goals). At the end of the workshop, she would like to have defined the functional scope of the video chat. Peter and Zou should include their ideas, and everyone should agree on the functional scope. The functional scope should be defined so precisely that a rough planning can be created from it. Mia sets two days for the workshop with 4 hours each. She formulates the goal as follows: “The goal of the two-day workshop is to jointly determine the functional scope of the video chat and define it in such a way that a rough planning can be derived.”

The collaboration

Next, Mia considers how the three of them will collaborate. She would like to brainstorm to gather as many ideas as possible. And later, to determine the scope of functionality, she would like to try eventstorming. She still lacks the tools for collaboration, so she starts searching. For brainstorming, she can find a lot of open-source solutions (MindMap search) and a virtual whiteboard is also quickly found (Whiteboard search). For video conferencing, she finds a product with a free limit of up to 5 participants. With these technical solutions, Mia is satisfied for now.

The agenda

Mia puts together a rough agenda. She thinks a short introduction round is good, even if they are friends of hers, they can use the round to talk about their previous work experience and skills. Mia schedules working sessions of 1 – 2 hours before there is a short break. After the first day, she plans a feedback round so that everyone can briefly say what is going well and what could be improved. Of course, at the very end there will be a summary and a detailed feedback session. The agenda for the first morning is now as follows:

Example workshop agenda
Example workshop agenda

The invitation

Finally, Mia puts everything together i.e., the agenda, the programs used and her defined goal and sends it to Peter and Zou together with the meeting date. She asks them to also think about their goal of the workshop so that the fourth agenda item can be discussed. She also points out that they should both get a webcam and why that is important.

The Outlook

Mia is excited to see what her friends will say about the agenda and the workshop. At the same time, she is happy that it will start soon and that she can tackle the task together with her friends. How the workshop and especially the two methods (brainstorming and eventstorming) run, you will find out in the next articles.