Productive Online Workshops
The early weeks of covid-19 lockdown have seen an explosion in the take-up of on-screen technologies for conducting meetings, workshops and even simple one-to-one conversations. But with this surge in onscreen traffic comes corresponding confusion about how to look and sound professional and to get the most out of each session. This is not a new challenge (I remember chairing online meetings between London, Sydney and Atlanta in the small hours of the morning fifteen years ago) but I have been hearing about an urgent and widespread fear or dislike of the technology, which does not show the participants at their best or allow them to give their best. Even before everyone started working from home I was often asked: “How do you manage a meeting or workshop when you are not in the room?” Here are some tips (I will use “workshop” to mean any group meeting from which you have desired results).
Before the workshop
Define the objectives for the workshop. This is fundamental; without this there is no point wasting people’s valuable time. Send out these objectives with the invitation so the invitees can see whether they need to attend or to invite someone else.
Decide who will attend. This, of course, directly relates to your objectives. In my experience, working online you cannot handle more than 10 attendees. However, leave a few openings for last-minute additions if you can. You often hear: “And I thought that I had better invite … ”. Not everyone has to stay for the entire workshop. If possible identify which sections your busiest participants need to attend, and suggest in advance when they might want to arrive and leave. This means keeping firm control of the timing of the workshop, but busy people will appreciate your consideration and it might make the difference between them attending or declining.
Timing is important. Where possible, avoid holding your workshop between 14:00 and 15:00. For many people, this is their slowest, most unproductive time of day even when working at the office. They are likely to be especially sleepy sitting remotely at home without the stimulus of other people in the room. Aim for morning or late afternoon if you can.
Be available for questions about the workshop. There will always be someone who has a query before the event.
If the participants need to see documentation or any sort circulate it before the meeting. Send it out with the invitation if it is ready (rarely!); if not then it should go out with the agenda. In either case it should be received before the meeting in enough time to read it.
Choose the collaboration tool. I have used tools and services from powwownow (remember them?) through Skype, Zoom, Google Meet to MS Teams. Choose the one that works best for you and is your organisation’s standard (if the two are the same). If you book all meetings you can choose the collaboration tool.
Send the invitation a week in advance if possible.
Create an agenda
Circulate a detailed agenda to all invitees (NOT just those who have replied) from 36 to 48 hours before the workshop. It should list the main points to discuss and note who will be speaking to each item. List the visual aids, if any, needed for each point and note against each point what attendees should prepare/bring to the workshop. If time is critical you may have to put a time limit on each item to focus discussion.
Develop a Follow-up Plan including how you will record the discussions in the workshop (easy if you have a facilitator or other note-taker doing it for you), how you will circulate the decisions taken at the workshop and how you will keep attendees informed of progress after the workshop. Share this information when you send out the agenda so that the invitees will know that their contribution will be valued.
One simple rule I learned the hard way many moons ago: NO AGENDA, NO WORKSHOP
Work with a facilitator
If possible have a facilitator on the session who is not one of your SMEs but someone who can ensure that the agenda and timetable are followed (I will write more about the role of the facilitator in a future blog). The facilitator will be invaluable for pulling a straying discussion back onto topic and, if the discussion is going on for too long, they can apply a guillotine. With back-up the chair of the session can concentrate on forwarding the objectives of the session, leaving the mechanics to their facilitator. The facilitator should prepare carefully for the session and should be aware of any of “our” participants who might be unduly influenced, pressured or bullied and be ready to shield them.
Make sure that the technology works
When you are chairing or facilitating a “live” workshop there are essential checks to be done before it starts. Does the projector work? Is there a whiteboard or flip-chart? Pens for either? If you need a sound system, is it working? An online workshop also has a checklist.
If the session will need to access web-based locations with permissions from third party suppliers ensure that access will be available on the day. Test your access before the session and ask your participants to check their access, too. Can the collaboration tool work properly on everybody’s current operating system/browser combo? What is your fallback provision if a participant cannot get through on the day? Have you told them what it is?
I have found it useful to circulate a reminder to all invitees the day before the session asking them if they have checked their access. Have they made sure that they can use the collaboration tool? Have they done any reading or other preparation required? Tell them about the fallback situation and any last-minute changes or updates.
Special considerations for suppliers
Inevitably, a lot of workshops will include suppliers. If you are planning a supplier workshop, especially if there will be multiple suppliers on the session exchanging information, make sure that you have Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) in place with each of them or they may clam up in front of their competitors. Some suppliers on the session may charge for their time on the call; ensure that they are necessary and we are using their time wisely. If we do not make suppliers feel welcome and use their time well they will be reluctant to join future sessions. When facing suppliers, who are going to minute the session and relentlessly note any real of implied commitments you might make, be sure of your approval levels and do not commit to anything you should not. In fact, if you expect a commercial/financial element in the session have a ‘minder’ from finance or procurement in the session, or both.
During the workshop
Working remotely will provide the chairman and the facilitator with additional challenges. Be sure to start and end on time (have the facilitator police this, and any timed items). Establish the objectives/expected outcomes of your meeting or session again, right at the outset.
Use any tools that will best help the group progress towards those outcomes e.g. Microsoft Sticky Notes, Microsoft Whiteboard. I like the Trello Board (www.trello.com) and the Miro collaboration tool (www.miro.com). I also use mind-mapping software – MindManager (www.mindjet.com). However, it is quite pricey.
Supported by the facilitator the chair will guide and control the group process to ensure that there is effective participation, participants achieve a mutual understanding, their contributions are considered and included in the ideas, solutions or decisions that emerge, participants take shared responsibility for the outcome and ensure that outcomes, actions and questions are properly recorded and actioned so that they can be appropriately dealt with afterwards.
And you are going to be doing all of this without watching body language, facial expressions and the other visual clues we rely on face-to-face.
One risk of meeting online is the greater scope and inclination to wander. The chair and facilitator have to be especially disciplined and intervene whenever the meeting seems to be drifting away from its objectives.
At the end of the workshop, give an overview of what you have covered throughout the session and what has been decided. List NEXT STEPS with dates and the name of the attendee who is responsible for delivering each step.
After the workshop
It is common for a participant in a workshop to say something along the lines of: “there is a table and a graph of that in the March report. I will send you a copy”. Make sure that they do, and circulate it. Obtain and distribute any other materials identified during the workshop. Distribute minutes and action points (action points are always necessary!) and remember to thank everybody for their participation. Complete your own action points.
And, most important: think about what could have gone better and how to do it next time.
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