How to deliver excellent workshops - remotely                         

Prior to the stay at home directive, the consultancy work that we offer, and had been delivering, included workshop facilitation – helping clients grapple with thorny issues such as: ‘Why is performance in this area declining and what can we do about it?’, or, ‘How can we operationalize elements of our strategy?’, or, ‘How can we maximize a new opportunity?’.

Clients value a structured approach to tackling these challenges, a neutral third party to support their thinking – one who can bring an external perspective and who isn’t emotionally intertwined with the situation.

During lockdown, we have switched to delivering workshops digitally, via Zoom - which was a tool we already used on a regular basis internally - and we’ve been relieved to discover that the ingredients for really great digital workshops are essentially the same as those for physical ones.

Certainly, in the first instance, and critical to success, are a clear brief and plenty of preparation. Then at the outset of the workshop, all participants need to understand the boundaries of the experience – what are we trying to achieve and how are we going to do it? So, agreeing clear objectives and ground rules to govern how we’ll work together are paramount.

As is creating the right environment to stimulating thinking and discussion, starting with briefing delegates beforehand so they arrive prepared. For physical workshops a good-sized room with natural light and an ambient temperature and access to refreshments, the right technology and equipment such as plenty of flipchart and pens, all help create a good environment. For digital versions, the use of breakout rooms and white board features are invaluable aids; and building in regular breaks for delegates to rest their eyes, get some fresh air and move about, is absolutely essential. Many virtual conferencing tools offer these functions, and the paid version of Zoom includes them too.

After that, a degree of fluidity in the session helps enormously, including adjusting the pace in accordance with the way discussions unfold (a good facilitator can do this without jeopardizing the overall achievement of the objectives - whereas sticking to a rigid agenda can) and also flexing the delivery style in response to delegates’ engagement levels, which can vary throughout the session.

We always point out to session attendees that an organization’s investment in a workshop is a precious moment in busy working lives – a time to rise above the everyday humdrum and think about broader and longer-term issues, and solutions to improve, ultimately, outcomes for our beneficiaries. As such, delegates have a vested interest in making the most of the opportunity to effect change. It is their session, not mine, and so participation, listening to their peers and constructive challenge are all essential elements of a good workshop.

An invaluable technique is a ‘car park’ – a way of ‘parking’ any issues that come up that cannot be resolved. Rather than sweeping these under the carpet, it allows the group to recognize and acknowledge these, so they can be returned to at a later date rather than being allowed to derail the entire session.

Capturing detailed output throughout the workshop ensures nothing is lost during the process and that the results of collective thinking time are preserved for future reference and planning. A top line recapping of the outputs at the end of the session helps participants appreciate what they have achieved, and to leave on a high, feeling good and motivated about the experience.

And finally, we always ask clients for their feedback about the workshop: what worked well, what could have been improved, what would they do differently. All valuable learnings in the life of a consultant, in support of our commitment to continuous improvement.

Beccy Murrell is Senior Consultant at THINK Consulting Solutions.
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