I’ve started to challenge the commonly held belief that nothing can replace in-person interactions. Since the shelter in place order took effect over a month ago, I’ve facilitated two virtual workshops and have been blown away by how effective they’ve been. In part because there are so many tools available – from the features built into your conferencing solution to live, interactive polling software like Mentimeter – making your virtual workshop a success is really about flipping your perspective.

Having planned, designed, and facilitated workshops for over 10 years, I fully expected the shift to a virtual format to create a dip in attendance and participation. Instead, attendance was high and engagement even higher.

And – spoiler alert – participants were not even required to be on video.

Workshop Format Overview 

At the core of workshop design is crafting the participant experience. Their willingness to engage with you, and the material, is vital to the success of the session. Without their participation, you have something more like a lecture series than a workshop.

For both of the workshops discussed here, the overarching goal was idea generation and to gather attendees’ points of view. Invites were sent several weeks in advance and, where specific department participation was required, follow-ups were made. The number of participants ranged from 15 to 30+ and timing ranged from 1.5 to 3 hours respectively.

My Three Hot Takes on Why You Should Host a Virtual Workshop 

1.     Greater participation 

It may seem counterintuitive, but in my sample size of two workshops, I’ve had nearly 100% participant attendance, and that’s without being able to use the offer of a free lunch to entice people to show up.

As always, it helps to determine the correct set of workshop participants and to clearly communicate why they are invited. In my recent virtual experiences, this created an extra level of flexibility for some participants who were unable to attend the workshop for multiple hours in a row. In an in-person environment, this might have been distracting to the point that these individuals just wouldn’t have attended at all, but the virtual format enabled them to come in and out when they needed to without creating any disruption.

Along with carefully curating who would be invited, we also streamlined what information they received beforehand, so that the topic of discussion and their roles were clear (why am I here and what are we going to talk about during this multi-hour meeting?) but we left the exact format of the workshop a little ambiguous. We did this so that people would contribute their ideas freely on the day, instead of coming with prepared answers confined by their job title. For example, in our strategic scenario planning session, pre-read material was distributed the weekend before so that the curious, planning types had an idea of what would be covered, but the specific agenda and question prompts were saved until the workshop. Having a degree of ambiguity around the questions meant that on the day of the workshop, participant contributions felt more spontaneous and authentic.

2.     More options to contribute according to your working/learning style 

The first thing I noticed about the tools available in a virtual workshop were the variety of communication methods to choose from. Instead of only relying on visual cues and the extroverts in the room to gather input, facilitators also have the ability to receive questions via chat (privately or to the group), and participants can come on and off video as they please, as well as “raise their hand” if they’d like to ask a question live. And these are just the options available within the conferencing solution itself (like Zoom, RingCentral, or Webex). For both workshops we also used Mentimeter – a real-time, interactive voting software (basic account is free!) – this was where the rubber really met the road in terms of soliciting input.

Mentimeter provides an anonymous way for participants to share their ideas without fear of being called on or called out. There were several times throughout our workshop, for example, when the facilitator had questions about the responses that were popping up live on screen. Sometimes the original contributor gave voice over to their answer, other times fellow participants clarified or added on to what was being shared – be still my collaboration-loving heart! You know you’re onto something good when ideas are being expanded upon and built up proactively by other participants.

3.     Easy data collection = shorter time to synthesize your data

Effective workshop design begins and ends with the participant experience. Being able to quickly follow up with your attendees after your workshop session is done is key to enhancing their experience. It enables you to reinforce why you needed their input in the first place and what you’re going to do with it now that all is said and done – all while the experience is still fresh in their minds. Having quicker and more effective access to workshop data streamlines that whole process.

Virtual collaboration (defined here as working as a team with the use of digital tools) makes data collection easier than if you were in person. For example, recording sessions is a great way to capture any dialogue that you may have missed live and also allows those that were unable to attend an opportunity to later listen in on the session (note though that you will likely have some participants drop off video if you choose to record). Added tools, such as Mentimeter, allow you to export participant responses directly to excel, shortening your time to synthesize and draw conclusions. This creates an all-around better experience, not only for your attendees, but also for you as the facilitator.

Other Thoughts on Virtual Working

There has been a noticeable shift within the teams I work with since the shelter in place order started. People are making an effort to engage on a human-to-human level more than ever before. They are keen to hear and be heard by their coworkers – the people who, before shelter in place occurred, they would see more of during the day than their own families. Everyone is eager to connect and find some semblance of normal during this time where everything feels so abnormal.

So, carpe diem and schedule that virtual workshop that you’ve been putting off. You may be surprised by the outcomes.