Pre-2020, online workshops were pretty rare- even in the field of international development, where they make a lot of sense. The pandemic forced us all to rapidly and radically adapt our practices, embracing online focus groups, workshops, webinars and townhall meetings. And while there is still no substitute for the energy you can get when people are in a room together, there are definite advantages to virtual meetings. No travel time or expenses, less childcare difficulties for some participants and simpler logistics are some that are key.
However, the challenge is to keep participants engaged. The following are some simple tips to make good use of standard online platforms such as Zoom.
1. Make good use of the chat
When you are not in a physical space with other participants, it can be tempting to listen with half an ear while doing your own work on this side. To keep participants fully engaged even when they are not speaking, encourage people to use the chat to move the conversation along. A great exercise to start with is to ask participants a question e.g. What is this team's greatest success this year? and ask everyone to type an answer into the chat simultaneously. This is also a great way to engage with participants who might be less inclined to speak up - you can ask them a question about their response. This is less likely to make them feel put on the spot than an open ended question.
2. Put up a poll
Quick polls are also a great way to break up a meeting. You can use them at the outset of a training workshop, to test participants' prior knowledge, or at the end. You can use them to check if people are comfortable with the conversation being recorded, or to get a better sense of where the person is dialling in from e.g. is it quiet, or will they need to be on mute for most of the conversation in a noisy place? They are also brilliant for feedback forms at the end of a session - they can be completely anonymous, and the rate of return is generally better than on those paper forms handed out at the end of a physical workshop.
3. Keep it short!
Even in face-to-face workshops, I am a fan of keeping timeframes as short as you can for the material you need to cover- and of respecting the timeframes that have been set. This is even more important online, where our energy flags sooner. One useful approach is to let participants know that you will open the meeting room ten minutes ahead of time, so that anyone who logs on early can have a chat, or leave it open ten minutes after the meeting ends. This helps to replace the important networking aspect of face-to-face meetings.