Are virtual workshops on your agenda yet?

We know high street sandwich shops are feeling the pain. But one can’t help wondering how giant Post It Note sales are holding up in a world without face-to-face workshops.

Along with the heady whiff of marker pens and the plate of posh biscuits, they’re an essential ingredient of any workshop.

If getting your best brains in a room together was a logistical nightmare it has become even more problematic in a pandemic. In the meantime, campaigns and projects sit on ice, unable to progress without those vital outputs.

You can’t beat getting the right people together to find the solution to a problem, brainstorm an idea or push a project forward. But do they really all need to be in the same room?

Necessity, the mother of invention

One of the benefits of being under lockdown was how it forced us to be more inventive. Indeed, we quickly discovered it freed us from some of the downsides of face-to-face workshops.

We lead and facilitate many workshops for our clients. From brand and product messaging to vision, mission and values sessions with employees to market positioning strategy and sales proposition materials with sales and marketing executives. Over the past few months we’ve realised you can achieve everything you did before, and more, with virtual workshops.

Sprints, not marathons

One of the downsides of face-to-face workshops is that once you’ve got your selected few in the room, you want to squeeze as much out of them as you can. Timings become tight. You run out of time to cover some topics. People get weary. They lose focus.

By contrast, virtual workshops can be split into one, two or three different sessions, across different dates and times. This gives people time to mull it all over and prepare for the next session. The standard of input goes up rather than down.

If your business is international, the other benefit of virtual workshops is that people don’t need to travel in from all over the world. So that’s less time spent travelling and none of the associated hassle, time wasted in airports and the expense of hotels, taxis, train and air fares.

At a moment in time, when budgets are under even greater scrutiny than ever, that has to be good news.

What we’ve learned

So what does a virtual workshop look like? And how can you whet the appetite of the attendees and make your sessions engaging, productive and fun?

Always start with an appetiser

A good way to get your attendees all warmed up for the workshop is to send them all a pre-workshop pack full of useful items and goodies. In the past, in addition to an agenda, we’ve sent out packs containing sharpies, sweets, Post-its and A4 pads to random items (more on that later), masks of famous people and speech bubbles on sticks.

Very often we’ll also set them some ‘homework’, which might be a competitor analysis, or some prep for a particular task like gathering stats or case study examples.

Tricks to engage them

A grid of bored looking faces is the last thing any workshop needs, and it’s easy for people to disengage and drift into checking emails and scrolling through text messages. So, to break things up a bit we also like to build in a range of tasks aligned with the objectives of the session.

To forge a compelling sales campaign for one brand we took the participants through a number of exercises. The aim was to identify the various mindsets and the corresponding messaging required to shift the mental model of their target audience from one state to another. This involved a mix of quiet, individual work, group discussion and sharing and finally voting on each idea or message, using online voting software.

For a brand values and behaviour workshop we gave the attendees 10 minutes to think about the traits of a famous person in relation to their brand and asked them to mimic the behaviour wearing the mask. The results were hilarious. It’s amazing how extrovert some introverts can become if you put them centre stage with a mask to hide behind!

Royaume-Uni, Nil points

Rather like the tedious voting part of Eurovision, sifting through workshop outputs and picking the best ideas and thoughts can sometimes feel like an eternity.

We quickly realised that our usual tried and tested, hi-tech, sticky dots voting system wasn’t going to work in a virtual setting. So we’ve successfully used some online voting software, which puts some ‘science’ behind the workshop outputs and provides an additional interactive aspect for the participants.

Of course, there’s still a role for face-to-face workshops. Done well, they’re a fun way to get together off-site, meet new people and share ideas.

But could the virtual workshop also be here to stay? Let’s have a show of hands.