Nudity! Babies! Puppies! How to keep virtual workshop participants engaged
As a consultant in the Salesforce ecosystem for almost 15 years, I have done multiple global implementations, which have often meant facilitating workshops and even training virtually. I don’t mind admitting that my first few attempts were frankly disastrous but, as with all soft skills, we learn from experience. So think of this blog as me passing on some advice, based on my own encounters, on how to facilitate a successful workshop without others being ‘in the room’ with you.
Obviously there are huge benefits of face to face interaction, most of all you have full participation and the attention of the room (Keeping the room engaged is Workshop Facilitation 101!). However life has changed for all of us, in the UK, where I’m based we are now in an enforced lock-down, we are all being asked to work from home, and face to face will not be an option right now.
So I’ve decided mid blog that I’m going to have to break this up, as I’ve just finished preparation and it’s already too long… As any good workshop facilitator knows it’s all about keeping your attention! I’ll make sure to write the next piece very soon.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
Like face to face workshops – preparation becomes even more important to its success when running virtual sessions. So it is uber critical to make sure you consider the following:
Create a Clear Achievable Agenda – This isn’t new, but remember when virtual, decision making and alignment will take you more time – you will need to get agreement from everyone, expect to ask participants one by one on key decisions. Be prepared for what you get on every conference call, people talking over each other, audio issues, slow wifi, postman at the door, kids distractions, and any number of reasons for you to have to repeat everything three times – allow yourself extra time to get through your agenda. Think carefully how long your virtual workshop should last. In my opinion, face to face workshops should last no longer than 4 hours, remember it’s about keeping everyone engaged – when virtual this is even more critical and frankly more difficult, so short targeted workshops work best.
Set Expectations – As well as your agenda, it’s also beneficial to prepare your participants with expectations, explain and share links to the tools you will utilise, especially if you want them to collaborate online as well. Work with your customer Project Manager or Key Stakeholder to deliver this message. If it is your first time be honest enough to say so, tell your audience that and together these sessions will improve, and this has the added benefit of building trust with your customer and audience. Additionally don’t forget your own team, make sure everyone knows their role internally. You should not try to manage this in isolation (no pun intended!).
Know your participants – Work with your Customer’s Project Manager to validate the participant list and understand the role they play in your agenda: are they the ultimate decision maker, or are they an end user? For me, I like to print off names, title, role and any other useful piece of information and have this handy during the workshop, and share with my team. Also, remember names! I’m pretty forgetful with people’s names, and believe me when you’re on a virtual call and you want people’s input, calling out ‘whatshisname’ or ‘person with the blue shirt’ is not really conducive to positive collaboration! Another tip: I like to write a cheeky descriptor on the printed sheet, something as simple as hair colour, video background, or that blue shirt again.
Select the Right Tools – I’m not going to go into detail on the thousands of tools available to you – just look on your Linkedin feed – most of these tools are being amplified across social media now, and the good news is that a lot of them are free! Whatever online tools you decide on, be it white boards (Miro, WebWhiteboard), brainstorming (Stormboard), process docs (LucidChart), story estimate (PlanningPoker), or voting/interactive tools (Mentimeter), test them out first! Make sure you know how to use them. Believe me, there’s no easier way to lose people’s attention than having to pause the call whilst you work out how to update a virtual whiteboard! Been there and have the t-shirt – it’s a size medium if anyone’s interested? You will also need to utilise collaboration tools of some sort, be they Google, Microsoft and, with my “Good Salesforce Partner” hat firmly mounted on my head, Salesforce Quip (which is now free to use as well), so make sure you set up what you need with appropriate access prior to your call.
Prepare an Ice-Breaker – Any good workshop facilitator will tell you the power of icebreakers to get the room warmed up, create some intimacy and most importantly bring some humor to the situation. Virtual is no different, but clearly you need to adapt your icebreaker, you cannot build spaghetti towers over video calls. Select an appropriate one that you can manage, and you do need to manage it – nothing worse than the sound of tumbleweed passing through when no one understands what they are being asked to do or you have not thought about it to the very end.
Turn off notifications – Before you call, turn off any automated notifications that could appear on your desktop – no one needs to read your partner’s message about how you forgot to put the bins out again! In one virtual workshop, I had my wife’s text message pop up about her not being able to go swimming as I had her costume… before you judge we were staying in town and I had the suitcase. Besides, it wasn’t my colour.
Prepare your space – It’s even harder now, you may have to fight off partners or housemates for space, or even share the kitchen table. I’m lucky that at home I have a working space/office that I can use every day. But, wherever you end up, make sure you have the space required with appropriate surroundings (I won’t tell you the story of what happened to my colleague early one morning, suffice to say that it involved his wife accidentally being a co-star in his video call when exiting the shower!). If you can, remove all dogs, pets, children, from your designated space. I actually find kids and pets cute and they help to break down barriers, but Mr or Mrs Decision Maker at your customer may not.
Hope you find these tips and hints useful, I’ve shared some of mine and ex-colleagues’ experiences gained over many years of virtual workshops and calls. Again, as with any meeting or workshop you have, the right preparation goes a long way.