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Going virtual—creating and running an efficient digital workshop

Business travel has been a common part of day to day working/professional life for many years. Getting around the table to properly discuss and decide was often the norm. COVID-19 has changed everything, but there are already plenty of positives to learn from for the future. Here is a great example from just last week:

I’m a self-employed consultant, with a background in science and technology and in one project I’m helping a client’s R&D organisation to digitalise the write-up of laboratory experiments. It’s a two-year project which started by landscaping current global practice across 40 laboratories. The next phase then defined future needs for recording, search and retrieval of complex scientific data. Our ultimate goal is to identify the best electronic laboratory notebook software for the business.

For the last two months I’ve successfully driven/directed a 70+ user pilot study of two software platforms. We scheduled a “big workshop” at the corporate HQ to compare and contrast UX for both platforms at the end of the trial. Planning for that workshop was on schedule and the practicalities were well advanced when everything changed.

Information from colleagues in China and Korea about the impact of COVID-19 started feeding in to me in mid-February: strength of the necessary restrictions and the inevitable interruption to business loomed large. When the impact began to be felt in Europe it was looking unlikely that the workshop could take place, putting the pilot study outcome at risk. As consultant leading the project, I had to motivate the core team to come up with a way to make the workshop virtual and achieve the same result—a user-driven decision on which software package is best, based on dialogue and consensus of the study participants.

The original plan was to run live demos of the two software platforms performing typical tasks, then allow time for feedback on each, followed by a show of hands and a survey for comments. The grand finale would be a vote on the preferred software. Lots of networking, free exchange of real-world feedback and everyone goes away happy that their views have contributed to the outcome.

How to translate this into a fully virtual format and get a similar outcome?

Here’s what we did:

Take global timezones into account

With participants in Asia, Europe and the US, trying to find one time for everyone is impossible. Engagement to participate is low if you have to join a meeting at midnight! So, run the virtual meeting twice.

Choose a reliable conferencing tool and test it beforehand

There are many to choose from, but whichever tool you choose, send the meeting invites and joining instructions well in advance and ask invitees to test in advance.

Moderation is key

As the conference moderator, always be online in advance of the meeting to welcome the early joiners. Encourage web meeting netiquette[1] and have a colleague monitor IM traffic whilst you are moderating.

Prepare

Browser-based software apps can be capricious, especially at key points when you are demonstrating them to an audience. To minimise risks, we had 10 different tasks to demonstrate on each platform, so we delegated across our core team and created 20 short videos in advance. This meant that we had identical content for both workshops, no worries about browser glitches, and a valuable resource for future use.

Black and white image of a man wearing a virtual reality headset.
Is this what meetings of the (near) future will look like?
Picture by Lux Interaction on Unsplash

Digitalise the feedback

Tools like MS Forms & Menti are wonderful for gathering feedback and also get users to do the input for themselves, giving you ready-made structured data. We asked for feedback after every pair of videos and we got a significantly higher return rate and data quality, compared to scribbles on paper.

Don’t forget the comfort break!

Even though everybody is at home, it’s still a two-hour meeting. Give delegates a definite re-joining time.

Have a running order

Have all the resources ready to go and be really familiar with the intricacies of screen-sharing for the tool you are using. When it all flows, you will hold your audience.

And it was great. Plenty of engagement with lots of positive feedback on the format. We got a 90% preference on one of the software packages—a clear winner.

Because we recorded the whole of both events, we also picked up extra participants later who couldn’t join us live. Everyone complied with their various lockdown restrictions and there was an awful lot of CO2, time and hard cash saved through not travelling. All in all, a great model for the future.

[1] https://www.gvsu.edu/webconf/web-conferencing-etiquette-tips-8.htm

Large boardroom in the daytime with empty chairs around a desk.
Will boardrooms become a thing of the past?
Picture by Benjamin Child on Unsplash
  • Join us on July 9 for a webinar on Microsoft’s remote working tools.

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