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Best practices for hosting virtual workshops

Bryan Smith
Jul 7, 2020 10:00:00 AM

Having small groups who work remotely together is a new paradigm in today’s business reality. Remote collaboration has proven to make team members feel comfortable working from home with flexible hours, sometimes with different groups of people per day. 

Video conferencing has tied together distributed teams into virtual environments that have done more than just "replace" face to face interactions.

Successful virtual meetings and online workshops have begun to take hold in today’s business community in ways that would seem hard to explain even ten years ago.

With all of this emphasis on online video conferencing, there is a lot of pressure on the virtual facilitator of this critical business function to perform. So how do we ensure that we’re running our online workshops as well as we can? In the following, we are sharing some tips and best practices for virtual workshops.

Workshops inherently have to be small

Workshops are intimate in nature, and have to have a strong sense of two-way communication. Users have to be able to participate in order to pay attention. While there are some virtual conferencing tools to help encourage idea-sharing, such as whiteboards and easy screen sharing, it’s hard to keep groups of people focused on the same thing.

This is why workshop groups need to remain small enough so that everyone has not just one quick chance to speak, but feels as though they regularly contribute to the conversation that is taking place. This is true engagement, and the secret is that there are scaling limits to how engaged users can be.

The workshop material has to be compatible with the online environment

Workshops are here to serve the purpose of training for your professional position. Some professional activities (like sales) lend themselves very well to online training. Others… do not. It’s difficult to do a workshop on mechanical maintenance, or welding, from a strictly online and virtual environment.

While it can be done, and plenty of people further their learning on hands-on occupations with the use of online video all the time, there are some things that fundamentally can’t be fully substituted by virtual presence – at least not as of now.

Business management, sales, accounting, and even tech support are all things that lend themselves well to virtualization easily now. Nuclear technicians and team sports athletes probably don’t rely so much on virtual environments.

Virtual workshops need a good balance of preparation and improvisation

Virtual environments do demand a little homework on the part of the facilitator in order to really shine. For one, technical difficulties are still the bane of this blossoming industry. It’s important to do dry runs of your conferencing software to make sure that at least your connectivity and all the moving parts work well together.

You, as the event leader, should be setting an example for having the meeting work as intended. But preparation goes beyond just being your own tech support.

The content of your workshop is a delicate dance between being planned and being improvised. Workshop topics are better kept as a list of bullet-points rather than a rigid script to perform in front of your attendees.

Energy levels are vitally important to making the virtual space work for you. It is easy for people to be disengaged, or get distracted.

You may want to meditate on certain scenarios and try writing out a flow-chart of how you would handle different situations. A flexible plan is better than a rigid plan when you’re involving live events with people who aren’t following a script.

Practice until you feel comfortable covering your topics in several different ways.

Workshops should be brief and meaningful

There’s truth to the idiom “short and sweet”. It may be that your workshop can cover all the topics you need to go over in a shorter period of time than you envisioned.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.

The way it can turn into a bad thing is if you have a tendency to drag the meeting on for longer than it needs to, just for the sake of covering time. No one likes ‘filler’, so it’s crucial that you value everyone’s time.

But it goes beyond just being short, it must also be sweet. So that means that energy levels and engagement during your online meeting must be at a healthy high during the entire meeting. If people’s energy and interest begin to fade off, that may be a good sign to wrap up the meeting and bring it to a close.

Stay creative and be flexible

It’s entirely possible that an opportunity to talk about something that wasn’t planned will come up. If there’s a good topic that comes up, don’t feel like it’s off limits simply because it wasn’t in your allotted time-budget.

Many virtual meetings can be recorded, so if people have to leave they will. If there’s a magic moment that you happen to run into during your workshop, seize the opportunity!

Distributed teams don’t get to see each other at the water cooler in order to bounce ideas off of each other, so this may be the best time to hash out topics that may come up only then.

Some software allows for breakout rooms, which you can and should consider allowing, in case two or more people have a nuanced thing they want to hash out together during the workshop.

Practice and persevere

In order to feel comfortable hosting online workshops, using all your conferencing tools, and working remotely with your team members, you simply just have to put in the time.

The hardest part is getting started. Eventually, your consistency and familiarity with this new paradigm will grow.

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