There is an excited flurry of activity right now among meeting, workshop and conference organizers -and their facilitators -as travel restrictions due to the coronavirus cause cancellations of face-to-face (F2F) meeting formats. Planning meeting agendas are being taken over with the exploration of different technologies, tools and platforms to help hold these events virtually.

But in many ways, virtual gatherings are not so different to their F2F counterparts.

It’s worth remembering, and I am talking to myself here too, that these meetings, workshops and conferences themselves are tools – a means to an end. We don’t organize workshops or conference just to have them – they are not boxes to tick in our annual workplans. We use these gatherings for other goals that are important to us. The most useful thing to bear in mind when looking at all these different models, tools and platforms to convert our F2F meetings into virtual formats is, “What was the end we had in mind?”

What did we want to change or be different as a result of our workshop? What did we want people to know, think or do differently after attending our conference? What did we want to have in our hands as outputs at the end of our meeting?

No doubt there was a task you wanted to complete – whether it was to collect useful input to a strategy development process, collectively write an article, review a set of draft guidelines, or exchange good practice to build community capacities, and so on. There were also probably some softer outcomes in mind, like helping build relationships in a community, reinforcing trust in a process, or inspiring buy-in and support in promoting the final co-created product.

Putting your desired outcomes first will help make choosing the right technology to support it much easier – form follows function (if you will pardon my invocation of an over-used design cliché.) If we take a step back and remember our desired outcomes and outputs, that will help make this conversion-to-virtual process easier, and potentially tap into some creativity in terms of how we get things done virtually.

A couple of other thoughts on virtual workshop design – length and complexity

We observe in our F2F conferences and workshops that even the most well-intentioned participants have finite attention spans. It may be less obvious when people are sitting in an auditorium as they can easily dream away while still looking fixedly forward at the person standing at the podium. They can of course also choose to keep talking to the person they just met at coffee break and leave their seat empty in the plenary room. (It is of course harder to disappear when there are only 15 or 35 people – although they may invoke the “sorry, I couldn’t reschedule this important call.”)

Online, there are a multitude of ways people’s attention can drift away or be drawn away – pulled by their computers, email, various devices. And there is no way to tell if they are even there at all, or just popped out to make a coffee, if they are on mute and no camera is being used.

So the same rules apply to virtual as F2F, keep things short and to the point. In F2F we rarely have sessions that are more than 90 minutes to two hours maximum before taking a break. Within those blocks we use a lot of techniques to keep messages focused, interventions short, pithy and discussions interactive. Virtual sessions should use the same rhythm, sticking to these familiar timeframes, and include well-prepared interventions.

Technology adds a layer of complexity for both participants and organizers. Even in F2F, preparing a presentation and standing up to speak is something that most people are happy to do. But add a PPT projector, slide changer, microphone and sound system, and things can fall apart if not practiced and tested. This is the same for virtual environments where seasoned speakers can be perplexed by talking, keeping an eye on the chat stream, and changing their slides at the same time – especially the first few times they do it. Speaker preparation is something that needs built into both formats.

Although we all have our phones in our hands at every moment of the day, even using polling apps in F2F workshops (like polleverywhere or mentimeter) with an increasingly tech-savvy audience, still creates complications for some. This is why we take time for set up and do some low risk test questions before we use these tools for real data gathering. With online interaction it’s the same, and we do need to add in that additional time for people to get used to the tool – take it slow, make it easy with clear instructions, and practice. It also helps to be humble and invite the audience to join in the experiment of trying new things and invite them to give feedback afterwards on what worked and what could be different next time.

The good part is that people are getting more comfortable with these technologies, at least as users. With this current situation, many more will also get more comfortable with the back end of these platforms and tools as administrators. Whether it is using a polling app on our phone F2F or using zoom in our offices or at home, we are now more quickly domesticating these technologies.

It’s actually a great opportunity right now, and a great responsibility. By doing a good job with your virtual meeting or conference, you are building the capacity and confidence of the whole community to work together in this way. Once people feel comfortable with the technical aspects,  and have a productive and enjoyable experience working together virtually, they will show up differently next time.

This is a valuable mass learning opportunity for our community to learn how to work effectively together virtually. It’s possible that, even without travel restrictions, we may never go back to the same meeting culture we had before. We will still gather, but may be even more ambitious with precious F2F meetings, with their substantial investments in carbon, budget and time. If we get our methods right, we may get the same valuable outputs in virtual formats as F2F, demonstrating that they are not so different after all.

7 replies
  1. Michael Randel
    Michael Randel says:

    Timely reminder, once again, Gillian! I appreciate the points you make here, and the gentle invitation to build capacity and proficiency for working in a virtual mode.

    One idea that I would add, particularly in the current challenges from COVID-19: replacing face-to-face with virtual processes can accomplish the same (or very similar) outcomes – you can reach the same ends. But working virtually may take a longer time-span to get there, but can do so in ways that are more creative. By spacing sessions, and allowing for a blend of real-time and own-time (or synchronous and asynchronous) elements, the virtual interaction can still enable rich, highly engaging and interactive processes.

  2. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Thanks Michael, I completely agree with you! Many of the projects that I am working on now to translate F2F into online interaction are built on spacing elements of the work out over a longer time period and working with both synchronous and asynchronous tasks, using different online collaboration tools. You need to pick apart the different elements of the activity, and be very clear about what you want to get out of each piece. It seems like we are all moving in the same direction and facilitators like us are getting to stretch our toolkit even further into this new and exciting realm of interaction!

  3. Phil
    Phil says:

    Thanks Gillian – agree very much about keeping the focus on purpose, chunks of time and making the approach as simple/accessible as possible. The learning and sharing at the moment is so encouraging. My hunch is that in the longer term the number of events requiring longer travel may halve (in number/frequency), which would be a massive step change with a huge carbon contribution. However there is scope to double participation (‘attendance’) in the more distributed process too. Multi-handed moderation of the virtual experience is even more important that in f2f I think so the session flows well and is fully engaging (head, heart and hands). Thanks again and best wishes.

  4. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Thanks Phil, you are right that in all this keeping it simple will serve us, especially to begin with as people get their heads around this new way of meeting. And getting more facilitation support will make these online events smoother, as facilitators work to translate their useful skill sets into virtual space.

  5. Douglas
    Douglas says:

    Good one, Gillian! Really good points, especially about the time frames and attention spans. One of the challenges we’re grappling with is keeping the humanity levels up, even in the virtual sphere. It’s a moment to get creative! Thanks for this input.

  6. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    I love the notion of “keeping our humanity levels up” and indeed creativity can be a sourve of energy and joy, especially when shared. Thanks for your comment, Douglas!

  7. Bruno
    Bruno says:

    Thank you for helping frame this as an opportunity, Gillian. We’re privileged to be in a profession that won’t necessarily get sorely affected by this crisis, if only we can leverage it and ‘upgrade’ our entire approach and philosophy of gatherings to a more virtual one.

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