The COVID-19 pandemic startled us all; the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders created, very quickly, a new normal of working out of our homes and meeting each other over the internet.
But it really wasn’t so new to us. The team at Knowinnovation – our sister organization – had already been using virtual tools to facilitate on-line workshops for scientists. Originally, it was about our carbon footprint, but soon we saw that people who couldn’t travel or take several days off to attend an in-person event could still participate and contribute their expertise in our on-line workshops.
These virtual events created opportunities for inclusion.
Participants and clients claim these virtual workshops are productive, sometimes more productive than the many in-person events they’ve attended. Sure, it’s still hard to recreate the serendipity of striking up a conversation at breakfast, or falling into a spontaneous chat over biscuits during a coffee break. But we’ve found ways to keep our virtual workshops super interactive and engaging.
Be ready: these are not like Webinars; we don’t do passive events. After our on-line workshops, people tell us their time was well spent and they came up with concrete outcomes.
We’re agile in Zoom, hosting plenary and sub-group workshops, and keeping them interactive. Whether it’s a single 90-minute session, a series of 3-hour sessions over multiple days, or a week-long program — we can design, facilitate and support the technology to produce dynamic on-line events that get people talking to each other, really talking.
We use several on-line platforms to host the event and help participants capture their thinking as they generate questions and ideas, using virtual post-it notes. We can connect, without friction, to other platforms (Google Drive, Mural, etc.,) to record the output of the discussions and working groups in concrete form to use moving forward.
We can create separate sessions with deliberate Zoom links, for plenary and breakout groups, allowing participants to move back and forth on their own, with little friction – like walking down a corridor and dipping into different meetings. We can create a water-cooler for casual networking and conversations, a bulletin board to leave questions and comments, a page to hold critical background links. We can invent the spaces you require to support the participants and the outcome of your event.
If you were planning a 3-day in-person event, we might suggest you extract some aspects of what you’d planned to do and simplify your event. Or we may counsel you to stretch the event out over 5 or 6 days, or longer, to mitigate Zoom fatigue and to take advantage of incubation and thinking time between sessions. We’ll do our best to advise you about the timing of virtual workshops and how to be sure to keep participants’ attention throughout.
For a pan-global event, especially one that includes participants from regions with internet bandwidth and load-shedding challenges, there will surely be participants who struggle to connect consistently. We’ll design methods to follow along with or without internet and we’ll build in asynchronous work to maximize collaboration across multiple time zones. It’s tricky – the connectivity issue is still a big challenge, especially for those in the global south. But we’ll work to mitigate the disruptions and create back-up systems to help every participant stay engaged.
We’ve learned that virtual events require more preparation time to translate what would happen easily in an in-person environment to one that is effective on-line. We’ll take the time to set up platforms for meeting and for recording output, organizing pre-recorded materials, thinking through the blend of synchronous and asynchronous interaction, as well as preparing participants to feel comfortable with (and to maximize) the interactive virtual experience in Zoom and elsewhere.