Updated: Aug 6, 2020
With recent global events many people have had to work from home. This can prove particularly tricky when face to face project workshops are due to take place and critically important projects need to progress. Whilst not being physically face to face has many drawbacks, technology has provided us with the ability to see people’s faces and reactions through video conferencing software and to collaborate online.
This blog shares experiences of client projects that started face to face and had to move to remote working, the benefits and whether virtual workshops can be as effective or are in some ways better than face to face. We also share 5 virtual workshop tips to maximise value added to project teams whether under lock down, spread across the globe or a mixture office and home working.
1. Quickly adapt workshop approach, templates and where possible timelines
For projects involving workshops it is key to achieve the same if not better outcomes working virtually. Copying and pasting a workshop approach by having 30 people on a video conference format does not work from an interactivity, attention span and “managing the room” perspective. To maximise productivity in a virtual workshop setting think about the outcomes and objectives of the workshop and how you can break up what may have been a 1 or 2 day workshop into bite sized mini workshops spread over a longer time period.
A recent project example is from an FMCG organisation who needed a new global strategy to improve their operations and supply chain performance. Before Covid-19, various 2 day workshops had been planned in different countries. The project was of high importance to the client and once lockdown hit, instead of pausing the project we had to quickly shift to virtual working to maintain momentum.
This saw us take the 2 day workshop agenda and spread it across a few weeks using bite sized sessions of 1 to 1.5 hours for each topic with team working between each bite sized session. Significantly more preparation and support was required to brief client teams on topics create templates, get inputs and align all team members as we had lost the ability to co-create around a flipchart.
This bite sized approach benefited the client by resulting in richer content for use later in the project as people could contribute to the templates in their own time. It also, provided a way for people who are not comfortable contributing in group or video conference environments to make a contribution.
2. Local culture, soft skills and team size are even more important when running virtual workshops
When having to work remotely taking different cultures into account and soft skills play is even more important. In another recent project, we supported an automotive manufacturer to move elements of their production to Asia. As we were unable to travel, we identified local workstream leads to maintain momentum and drive progress day to day . The use of tools such as Culture Compass also helped to maximise cross cultural working and productivity.
Workstream leads were briefed ahead of any workshop activities so they felt comfortable in what was coming, leading their workstream group and the activities between bite sized workshop sessions. Workstream team sizes were limited to 8-10 as running virtual workshops with more than 10 people becomes less effective. Workstream teams were functionally diverse to minimise bias and maximise perspectives from across the organisation to really push the art of the possible.
3. Video conference location is key
When leading video conference workshops we have encouraged everyone to make sure they have their camera on to maximise engagement. Even after many weeks of lockdown we understand that there may still be people who may be uncomfortable with seeing themselves on camera. By having around 10 people on a video conference call we can “work the room” and invite different attendees to comment and contribute. Being suitably dressed and in a good location helps. If possible sit facing a window (laptop facing towards you away from the window) with a wall behind you and if necessary use of one of the many backgrounds teleconference software provide.
4. Have virtual workshop outputs on the cloud
To make contributing to virtual workshops as simple as possible we create easy to populate templates and communicate a clear folder structure on a cloud based file sharing platform such as Google Drive or Microsoft Teams. Security should always be front of mind. As cloud working becomes ever more popular, organisations place a lot of trust in cloud solutions being fully secure as they would sending emails.
Being vigilant on who has access to cloud sites, folders and files and using passwords help maintain security as much as possible. I welcome cloud working and the benefits it brings to virtual workshops such as: increased contribution from team members (especially those who are not comfortable in group/video working), increased productivity from team members being able to work on a document at the same time, minimised risk of people updating the wrong documents, version control and not having to email large files around.
5. Check and adjust
The times of the informal coffee catch up or beer are on pause. Even an informal catch up requires a diary invite. This is where the workstream leads come in. Arrange a weekly “touch base” with them to see how the virtual workshop process is working for them and adapt as required to help them succeed in completing the workshop documents and templates. This will help build relationships and maximise the outcomes and objectives of the workshop set out in the beginning.
So, is video conferencing as effective and actually better than face to face for workshop productivity?
There are many aspects to take into consideration.
From an environmental impact, time away from home and cost of travel perspective virtual workshops are best.
In terms of workshop effectiveness, video conferencing will never be able to recreate the feeling, creativity or spontaneity of being physically present with a group of people in a workshop setting. However, the view that physical face to face workshops can only be effective has recently been proven not to be 100% valid.
Although virtual workshop content outputs might be richer, the time period for virtual workshops are much longer due to splitting workshops into bite sized chunks so what may have been a 2 day workshop becomes many weeks contributing to video conference fatigue and increased potential for moving project timing out to the right which may not always be an option.
In addition the discussions and informal conversations over a coffee during face to face workshops that can spark new ideas are no longer there.
Given all of the above. Our view is that face to face workshops remain more effective vs virtual workshops for now due to: faster outcomes, minimised overall business impact, improved relationship building and the ability to have informal discussions which are not possible over video.
What are your experiences of running workshops during lockdown?
In your opinion is face to face better than virtual workshops?
Would you trade off lower travel and environmental costs for a slower richer outcome?
In your view should the required speed and cost of outcomes determine how much "face to face" a project is?