“Collabforge worked with our team to design and deliver an outstanding online stakeholder workshop in the middle of COVID restrictions. They helped us plan every aspect, from how to make everyone feel comfortable using new online tools and platforms, to how to focus discussions so we started and heard the in-depth conversations we needed. Everyone walked away much more engaged with our program and really pleased with the outcomes, I honestly don’t think that we would have gained much more by doing things face-to-face for this event.”
– Emily Byrne, Victorian Department of Environment, Water, Land & Planning

During the Melbourne Covid lockdowns, my kids kept asking me, “When will we be able to hangout with our friends?”. “I don’t know,” being my daily reply. It feels the same with face-to-face workshops, annual events and AGMs, even conferences. When will we go back to business as usual? Who knows, maybe never, especially when considering the costs and impacts of flights, accommodation, venues, catering and the impact on the environment. We may be discovering that these costs simply aren’t always justified.

Having designed and delivered quite a range of online collaboration events since Covid, we are finding that it is possible to get most if not all workshop and event outcomes needed through online participation. I feel like we have hit our stride in this space and wanted to share some of our top, simple lessons learned.

1. Breakouts are essential, but require careful planning

Online breakout groups simulate the work that groups would normally do at a shared table. It fosters social connection and allows larger groups to break down complex problems into smaller pieces. But it’s important to keep in mind that not all video conferencing platforms provide breakout group features. Make sure to look into tech specs before committing to a software platform. And unless you plan to have multiple facilitators supporting breakout groups (which we do sometimes) you’ll need to design them well and keep activities and instructions very simple.

2. Practice makes perfect, so rehearse your moves

Assigning 30 people in a Zoom workshop to breakout rooms can take several minutes and will take all the focus of the person doing it. You’ll need to build this time into the agenda and have a dedicated role (you won’t be able to do or say anything for a few minutes while concentrating on this!). The same considerations go for moving into a screen shared presentation with a guest speaker and “spotlighting” them. Just like those awkward moments where a speaker battles with getting a presentation to work in the old days of face-to-face events, these types of tech moves can be every bit as off-putting for participants, draining the group of energy and confidence in the process and host organisation. Plan these moves out in detail and to the minute, and then practice them with your delivery team.

3. Dedicated phone help line, to maintain flow

Most of us struggle with new technology at the best of times. An online workshop that is genuinely engaging and collaborative will almost certainly use the advanced features of your online conferencing software, as well as inclusion of other tools like virtual whiteboards or polling apps. We have found that having a dedicated help phone line has been essential for supporting less technologically-inclined participants. It lets facilitators keep their focus and participants stay engaged in the workshop process. In every online workshop we have run since Covid, this phone line has been used. Be aware, you’ll need a “dedicated” resource; the person taking a call will not be able to do anything else while helping troubleshoot an issue. Having this level support to keep participants in the flow has been a consistent part of the great feedback we have been getting.

4. Energizers that connect, to maintain interest

With generally shorter time blocks and easier access to amenities (you know where the coffee and bathroom is!) I was initially sceptical of the need for energisers in the online format. However, having tried a number of approaches now, I am convinced of their value. But what makes for a good energizer online is a little different. Focus on short moments that engage participants in an easy task or question that gets them laughing or interested in each other, like, “a prize for best animal on screen” (the best I’ve seen this year is a 20 hour old goat, which needless to say won the prize and lit up the group!). These types of activities, if used sparingly and judiciously, dramatically improve the energy and mood of the group, drawing them into the next activity and each other.

5. Minimise digital silence, try some music

In face-to-face environments, there are any number of cues we take for granted to fill the empty space between us as we enter a new environment. The shuffle of feet, chairs being shifted, side conversations as people introduce each other, even the soft hum of the air conditioner! The effects of digital silence on participants in online environments has the reverse effect, draining excitement and energy and increasing feelings of awkwardness. At moments when the digital silence is especially palpable, like when folks are arriving and waiting for a session to start, we have been getting good results from streaming low volume music. Not only does it take the edge off the deathly silence, it gives folks a talking point to help to help bridge their lack of social connection: “Oh, that’s a nice choice of music, what kind of jazz is that?” Just make sure you test volume levels beforehand and don’t over do it – you don’t want to create distractions when people are trying to concentrate.

At the heart of all of these tips is designing for a great participant experience. If you can keep this focus while also creating a design that gets the outcomes you need, then you have a receipt for online success! This is of course easier said than done, so feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss how we might be able to help. We often play an advisory and support role, helping our clients deliver great results while keeping them in the spotlight.

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