Best practices to follow for online workshops: Learnings from SEED virtual trainings during pandemic times
SEED shares learnings for online workshops during the COVID-19 era
Workshops are an important format for business development services (BDS) providers to deliver support services to eco-inclusive enterprises. Peer exchange, collaboration, and networking are some of the dimensions that embody the workshop experience. However, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related measures, such as lockdowns and curfews, BDS providers have had to adjust and reconceptualise the workshop experience.
Since March 2020, SEED trained more than 80 BDS providers in virtual workshops. Such workshops included both ‘Training of Trainers’ and co-creation sessions, and comprised more than 75 workshop hours distributed over 20 workshop days. Our experience shows that moving from in-person workshops to virtual trainings comes with both opportunities and challenges.
Here we share our learnings on how to have good workshop experience in a virtual setting by:
- choosing suitable digital tools and build digital literacy within the team,
- planning and preparing well,
- being empathetic and adjusting the pace of training,
- creating interactive sessions, and
- collecting, reflecting, and making use of feedback
- Choose suitable digital tools and build digital literacy within the team
At SEED, we created an internal digital task force to prototype and test how programmes can continue and thrive given the new circumstances. During that process, it became evident that different virtual meeting forms, tools and modes of communication are required to conduct a successful virtual workshop.
Workshop co-working and documentation: Whiteboard platforms like Mural or Miro, enable visual collaboration in the digital sphere. Making use of such platforms allows for the preparation of worksheets or frameworks, in the context of SEED trainings allowing the workshop participants to work with tools centred on design thinking. Likewise, brainstorming ideas can be facilitated, key points from the workshop can be summarised and illustrated, and thus be documented for reporting purposes. Should participants face any connectivity issues, offline documentation such as PowerPoint (shared before the workshop) may constitute an alternative. In regard to your internal team’s preparation using online spreadsheets and platforms to store documents fosters co-working among teams that are physically apart.
Synchronous communication: Trainings can be transferred to the digital sphere with the help of live conferencing software like Zoom. It will be important to not only choose a software that allows for setting up virtual meeting rooms, but also collaboration-enabled conference rooms. While virtual meeting rooms serve the purpose of general sessions in the plenary, the availability of a conference room feature makes digital group work a reality. Having participants turn on their camera and share their screen helps to bring people from different places, even continents, together and have them exchange ideas even during pandemic times. Adding in interactive formats, such as polls in Mentimeter, helps to have everybody’s voice heard.
Asynchronous communication: Asynchronous communication, such as online group chats in WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, or any other messaging software is useful for both the facilitator team and the participants. Having access to a team internal channel facilitates the communication among the workshop facilitators as they can make arrangements on time changes in the session outline, address technical issues, or discuss any other arising questions. Asynchronous communication also constitutes a great way to build a community among the workshop participants during and after the trainings, especially if the programme is spread over several months. If needed, the facilitator may as well think about supporting the purchase of internet bundles for participants who would not have access to the internet otherwise.
Source: adapted from Tippin et al. (2018): The Definite Guide to Facilitating Remote Workshops.
- Plan and prepare well
What has become evident in SEED’s virtual workshops is that sufficient time to plan ahead and a good preparation are key for the successful implementation of online trainings.
From our Training of Trainers workshop series, four half days of trainings sessions in a given week, plus one reflection/assignment day in between has proven more effective and efficient rather stretching the only 4 half day sessions series across a couple of weeks. It may derail participants from the content and context otherwise. Spreading multiple modules over several months is good too. Also, for example as part of an enterprise support programme, shorter training sessions may be an option. Either way, it is essential to plan sufficient time for breaks and time to reflect as the concentration span of participants in a virtual workshop setting is shorter than in an in-person context. Our experience shows that the typical online workshop ‘stamina’ on a single day is a maximum of four workshop hours with a break of at least 20 minutes.
Drafting a high-level outline in addition to a detailed session flow, including detailed timings and distribution of roles, is pivotal to ensure the smooth execution of an online session. For the whole facilitator team to access this information, it is advantageous to work together in an online spreadsheet. Information on the outline and flow can be complemented by attendance lists, group work classification, or links to the online co-working space to be shared with participants.
In regard to group work organisation, consider participant profiles and backgrounds to create a good group dynamic and adjust case studies throughout the workshop series accordingly. Assigning participants to conference rooms during the workshop for group work helps to create a productive virtual peer-learning experience by offering a space for exchanging knowledge and skills.
Concerning responsibilities, assigned roles range from content facilitating roles to technical assistance. It has proven useful to have one person in charge of technical assistance during the call so that the facilitator can focus on delivering content. Among others, the technical assistant sets up the conference calls, assigns participants to breakouts rooms, helps with technical troubleshooting, and maintains the online co-working space. Internally, a preparatory session, such as an internal Training of Trainers, can help prepare everyone for the new workshop setting.
“It was such a great opportunity to participate in the workshop. Despite of the shift from offline to online, and only 4-hour workshops per day, the session was great! The facilitation was efficient and dynamic through small group discussions with other participants. The SEED Toolkit was completely detailed, yet decluttered problems of everyday social enterprises. Hence, I would say that SEED BDS+ Training of Trainers gave me a good experience on developing a specific and realistic strategy to drive social innovations!”
Amadea Intan Kharisma, Indorelawan, Indonesia
- Be empathetic & adjust the pace of training
With workshops moving from an in-person setting to the digital sphere, the role of the advisor is changing as well. Especially, participants in virtual sessions have shorter attention spans than in-person. This is where it is important to be concise and prioritise the most important parts from physical workshops. Additionally, there may be a higher barrier for participants to ask questions and ask for clarification in a virtual setting and the facilitator cannot rely on physical cues to gauge understanding. Hence, for the facilitator it is key to be empathetic and have a positive attitude towards different learning perspectives. In our experience, being open to chat about the pandemic and how it has affected everyone was important to acknowledge the stressful times participants were going through.
“The SEED India online Training of Trainers virtual workshop was facilitated with valuable resources and professional support. The program design-thinking methodology and in-depth understanding helped us develop our own eco-inclusive business idea. While engaging in live case studies and interactive group discussion, valuable peer learning exchanges with multi-disciplinary team members in the designing enterprise framework helped us gain in-depth knowledge. The toolkit inspired us how to become an entrepreneur and learn from eco-inclusive enterprise success stories, guide and prepare to start-up and scale-up their own enterprise. Case Studies provided an in-depth understanding of innovative business models.”
Raja Krishna Murthy Morla, Government of Telangana, India
- Create interactive sessions
To incorporate the element of collaboration into a virtual workshop, it makes sense to use communication software that features a chat, polling, word clouds, quizzes, or Q&As. However, not all workshop participants might be digitally experienced. Therefore, it is essential to on-board the participants and bring everybody on the same page. For that purpose, workshop material and tutorial videos to on-board participants to digital platforms used can be sent out prior to the training. During the workshop, the facilitators can then explain the main features of each platform and how to use these features.
The facilitator should limit its own speaking time and instead keep the participants motivated by including interactive elements into the virtual workshop, such as group work and peer reflection to keep participants engaged and encourage them to exchange with each other. Collaborative online platforms are one way to help illustrate training material (e.g. toolkits) in a more lively way and individual case studies help the participants grow together as a group and identify with an example at hand. After having finished working in groups on a given task, peer presentation or reflection in the plenary are a good way to end a content session. Group work and plenary sessions can further be complemented by a networking session towards the end of the workshop day, in which participants are randomly assigned to small groups.
Icebreakers and energisers are a good way to start a workshop series, enabling participants to get to know their teammates.. An icebreaker can include some dance moves or word games. Such exercises bring back concentration levels after a break meanwhile getting participants to laugh and grow as a group. Further examples can be found on the Mural Blog. Alternatively, facilitators may ask a participant who feels comfortable doing so to take the lead on proposing something.
“First of all, the whole workshop was above my expectation. I was a bit sceptical doing 5-day workshop thru online / zoom. SEED BDS and TOT Team has deliver the material right to the target and now I can use all the tools, case studies and methodology to project that I have been working on for months and now can be finished smoothly after I implement the whole thing.”
Faransyah Agung Jaya, Coach Faran, Indonesia
- Collect, reflect, and make use of feedback
After the workshop, feedback from participants helps to recalibrate any remaining workshops as well as future trainings to participant needs. To improve the workshop experience, it is thus vital to set aside time for feedback both at the end of each day for specific feedback and at the end of the whole workshop series. Evaluations can include questions on expectations, previous technical or topical knowledge of the participants, key learnings and general feedback on the workshop organisation and implementation. Digital platforms such as Mentimeter or Zoom’s polling feature can be used for this purpose in a virtual workshop setting.
Compared to in-person workshops, in virtual workshops it is more difficult to gauge participants’ reactions. Furthermore, from the point of view of participants, there is a higher barrier to providing feedback during a virtual session than in an in-person setting. Using digital platforms to collect feedback enables the trainers to receive feedback representative of the whole group and not just from those that come forward and speak. What is particularly helpful when using digital platforms to collect feedback is that it can be visualised immediately in an attractive way.
In brief, the SEED experience shows that virtual workshops actually can be an engaging and enriching experience. They have the potential to bring together people from different continents that would otherwise not have been able to access them or need to have flown around the globe to attend. To create a workshop experience that is beneficial to everybody, platforms for communication, organisation, and visualisation that suit the context of the training will bring a fruitful workshop experience to life in the digital sphere.
The implementation of a digital training requires more resources ahead of the actual workshop, as preparations using digital platforms take more time than planning in-person encounters. Yet, if planned and prepared well, empathetic and flexible facilitators will quickly adapt to the “new normal”, motivate participants to engage with each other, exchange thoughts and experiences and thus profit from peer-learning.
On-boarding participants on platforms is necessary to keep the participants engaged and active during interactive sessions, such as group and case study work. Since casual conversation with participants and gauging their reactions during the workshop is more difficult online feedback will help the facilitators to tailor workshop content to participant needs, and improve the virtual workshop experience over time.
“The overall experience of Eco-inclusive Enterprise Incubation was very good. It was a virtual workshop, but the way each session was facilitated by SEED made it very interesting and gave an experience of a physical workshop. The workshop material, specifically, the case studies, were quite relevant and useful, which helped in brainstorming during the workshop activities. It was an incredibly fun and beneficial experience.”
Jasmeet Singh, ICCO Cooperation, India