skype callBack in the 90s, I was working in a global change team, implementing a huge system change across all three regions of the corporation. During the programme, we had a travel ban. Faced with the need to collaborate across 23 countries to develop, commission and train the users of the system, we turned to technology.
I won’t lie, it was more difficult and our ideas didn’t always work, but we did deliver on time.
Here is what I learnt about designing and running virtual workshops;

Chunk it
No-one can be at their mental best spending one or more days on video link. If you separate your workshop into chunks, each with a very clear purpose or outcome, you can create two hour sessions and spread a one day workshop over three to four days.
One benefit of this is that people have time to reflect in between. Use this by closing each chunk with some questions to reflect on. These can then be the opener of the next session.

Information Delivery
Delivering lots of information on a virtual workshop is guaranteed to put people to sleep. You want their maximum attention and generative thinking.
Put a lot of effort into distilling the information you want them to take in into simple, clear messages. Send this out in advance as reading. Assign people to a pre-work video conference in small groups with a facilitator to spend half an hour debriefing what they have read. This will ensure everyone has the same and the correct information before each session.
Stand up and deliver as if they are all in the room with you. You will convey more energy and connect better. Use headphones for clear sound.

Max the Activity
During the actual session, make sure people are engaged by giving them lots to do; individually, in pairs, in groups.
• Checkin - ask a checkin question so that we hear everyone speak in the first few minutes
• Link the sessions
o Summarise the outcome from last time
o Use a debrief of the reflection questions (above) to link the last session to this
• Give a clear purpose and outcomes for this session
• Ask each person to say what is important to them personally from this section
• Design the rest of the session in five minute maximum content followed by group or paired discussion and exercises with outcomes fed back
• Check understanding with individual quiz’s

The design of a virtual workshop will take longer, but the time up front will pay off.

Visuals
If you are sharing slides, use more visuals and use words only for key messages. Limit key messages to three per session for optimum recall. Have a look at any Ted Talk for how impactful this is.

Breakouts
When people are working in small groups or pairs, they are usually on a separate video conference or face time. Give everyone a facilitator contact number to call if they get stuck and make sure they are clear when to come back. If possible, leave the main video link on so you can post a 10 minute countdown slide (I have one I can send you if you need one).

Structure Discussions
Facilitating a virtual workshop will involve moderating discussions with more discipline that usual. If you don’t you will bleed time, those who can’t be heard will lose interest and the quality of outcome will suffer.
Some tips for structured discussion;
• Be clear about the purpose and intended outcomes. Eg “The purpose of this discussion is to generate ideas for improving the customer experience. By the end of the session, we will have prioritised the top three ideas which three sub-teams will develop into proposals to be presented at the next session”.
• Give everyone 5 minutes of silent reflection on the purpose to generate their own ideas. They will have 30 seconds max to share each one.
• Share some rules; no interrupting, do not repeat an idea that someone already gave, feel free to add to your list of other people’s ideas stimulate new ones, say “pass” when you have nothing more, we’ll keep going until everyone says “pass”.
• Go around every individual in turn and ask for one idea (can be done with an online white board or someone typing onto a slide to keep them all visible).
• Keep going until everyone says “pass”.
• Give everyone three votes and some time to think before voting for the top three.

Breaks
Don’t forget to design in a break; no-one can concentrate if they are thirsty or need the loo!

Technology
I am not an expert in tech, but I have learnt lessons the hard way;
• Plug in your network cable rather than rely on wifi
• Send visuals to the participants as back-up in case the video fails
• Use good headphones to cut out background noise
• Ask people to mute when there is no discussion required
• Learn to use the gadgets; whiteboard, chat, polls etc

I hope you’ve found this series in support of home-working useful. Any and all other ideas and comments are very welcome. Good luck!