Are virtual workshops here to stay?

Covid has tested all of us. But it’s especially tested us at True Story since we specialize in in-person workshops and retreats. Once March of 2020 hit, we took almost all of our workshops and retreats (what we call “breakthrough conversations”) online, and like the rest of the world, conducted them over Zoom.

So, the question is: Are virtual workshops here to stay? Below are my thoughts.

First off, virtual workshops aren’t going away.

The reality is that the world has shifted. When we see large companies like Price Waterhouse Cooper tell 40,000 of its 55,000 employees that they can permanently work from remote locations, the work paradigm as we know it has changed. So the question for consultancies like ours is: Can we make the adjustment as well?

The fact is that virtual workshops have become an indispensable tool for us. They offer flexibility, convenience, and a unique kind of intimacy. When done right, virtual sessions can be highly effective, taking teams from point A to point B in a remarkably short period of time.

Virtual sessions can carry a heavy load — quickly.

We’re currently working with a large, federally funded medical clinic to map out their five-year strategic plan. To make sure we solicited information from all departments and levels, we led a couple of focus groups to garner key information.

We achieved incredible efficiencies by conducting these focus groups over Zoom. We didn’t need to worry about tracking people down and figuring out schedules to bring everyone together in one physical location. Instead, we brought together workers who simply took a lunch break from wherever they were. In two short sessions, we gathered critical insights from forty front-line employees. That information is now being filtered into the strategic planning process, ensuring a plan that’s grounded in real information.

Yes, it is possible to create an authentic sense of connection in a virtual environment.

There are simple tricks to creating a sense of connection. First, there’s the power of using people’s names. Before each virtual session, I create a spreadsheet with names of all participants. I literally “check the boxes” as we move through the discussion topics, to make sure everyone has had a chance to share their thoughts.

I also create tight agendas that I follow to the minute. By doing so, I’m able to create a sense of relaxation because people know what to expect. I find this is especially true for CEOs since they finally have a chance to sit back and participate, rather than having to lead.

Another great way to build intimacy and connection is to avoid screenshare. The danger of screenshare is that participants will become more focused on the document you’re showing than on the conversation. And really, that’s what the virtual session is all about — the conversation.

(Read more about how to lead a retreat over Zoom here.)

Props can still be used in a virtual environment.

We use six colorful hats for all of our in-person retreats. They’re based on Edward DeBono’s “Six Thinking Hats” Theory, which is essentially a framework for leading conversations, especially ones that may have tough topics to tackle. The “White Hat” is the hat of facts. The “Yellow Hat” is the hat of optimism. The “Black Hat” is the hat of critical thinking. The “Red Hat” is the hat of emotions. The “Green Hat” is the hat of creativity and possibilities (my personal favorite hat). And the “Blue Hat” is the hat of next steps.

Of course, there’s nothing like using these hats in person. You get the rolled eyes and groans, but once you start actively using them, people really start having a good time with them.

So can these props be used in a virtual environment?

The answer is “yes.” In ideation conversations, I’ll encourage participants to “keep the green hat on” to keep ideas coming, rather than having ideas get shot down. If I’m looking for a pulse check of the group, I’ll ask people to “put on the red hat.” And if we’re getting ready to wrap up a conversation, I’ll ask people to “put on the blue hat.” Others start to pick up on this language, and soon participants will remind each other to keep on a certain hat for their discussions.

Group size to consider for a virtual workshop.

We always encourage clients groups to invite more people rather than fewer people, particularly when it comes to core topics like branding and strategic planning. We find that the ideal size for virtual sessions is about fifteen participants, but we’ve led virtual sessions with as many as 35 participants. With a group that size, you’ll want to make sure you have a really tight agenda to keep that number of participants engaged and moving forward in a productive direction. Also, you’ll want to rely on the Zoom breakout room feature to enable deeper conversations with smaller groups.

The power of combining virtual sessions with an in-person retreat.

We recently led a large team from a telecom company back East through a brand promise and core values exercise. The plan was to meet in person as a group (all were vaccinated) to finalize these critical milestones.

To prepare for this endeavor, we staged several virtual workshops with smaller leadership groups. The virtual sessions were awesome. We extracted important information that helped us better map out the exercises for the in-person retreat. But these pre-retreat sessions also laid the groundwork for active collaboration and real-time decision-making when were together at the retreat. In fact, what normally takes six to eight months was collapsed into a short, but powerful three-month block. 

Final thoughts to share.

The reality is that virtual workshops are here to stay. As a side note, my husband is an appellate judge. He and his colleagues now conduct all of their court sessions in a virtual environment. Although my husband misses the opportunity to be with his colleagues in a physical environment, the virtual court sessions have opened up unexpected opportunities. For example, folks who normally couldn’t afford to pay for their lawyer to travel to the state capital, are now able to afford lawyers who simply call in from wherever they already are. So virtual environments are even serving justice better!

I do miss seeing people in person and, no question, there is a magic that happens when people are physically together. But moving forward, I firmly believe that virtual workshops will be a permanent fixture in how business gets done.