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While in-person events may have hit a roadblock as a result of social distancing, virtual events are taking off, largely due to platforms such as Zoom and MS Teams. Organisations signed up to these platforms to stay connected with colleagues but were quick to see the benefits they could offer in building and maintaining connections beyond everyday circles.

Webinars have fast become a mainstay, but one of the more tricky questions facing some of our clients is how to run virtual workshops in the current environment – and, more importantly, how effective are they compared to physical workshops?

Virtually speaking

Virtual workshops have many plus points. They are more accessible, save participants travel which, in turn, benefits the environment, and they are cheaper to organise as it’s not necessary to hire a venue or deal with caterers. Shorter lead times mean events can be frequent and dispersed rather than condensed into a single period of time and, of course, you aren’t necessarily limited by participant numbers.

The number, range and quality of ideas generated through digital brainstorming, collaboration and sharing artefacts has the potential to be significant. Shared workspace canvases, such as MS Whiteboard, Mural and Miro, can help you think visually. Planning tools, such as MS Planner, allow you to assign tasks, visualise progress updates and blockers, and capture notes. You can even incorporate voting and polling tools, like Mentimeter or Pigeonhole. Also, by adopting tools that encourage asynchronous communication, i.e. communication that doesn’t happen in real-time, for example, email, Slack, Google Docs, etc, you can progress ideas with colleagues through informal, ‘watercooler’-type conversations.

The flipside is that it can be difficult creating a strong emotional rapport with a workshop group virtually. There can be a risk of mission drift and low engagement within the group, not helped by distractions such as email – or even children! Low energy may also be evident, particularly in these difficult times.

In-person events

Physical workshops also have their pros and cons, as you might expect. On the upside, it’s easier to build rapport through face-to-face interactions, you get continual feedback through non-verbal communication, and physical activities and energisers can help maintain energy levels. Participants benefit from immersive, in-person, creative brainstorming and idea exploration sessions, although more informal conversations are largely restricted to individuals physically located in the same place.

The reality though is that physical workshops are unlikely to resume in the short to medium term, certainly in the way we’ve known them. A major hurdle will be the government’s need to satisfy its own five tests – particularly requirements around extensive testing and PPE, as well as avoiding a second peak – before it can lift quarantine measures.

Most organisations are mindful of the possibility of a second peak and there will be rising demand for organisational resilience should this occur. Combined with travel, venue and other costs of running physical workshops – at a time when organisations are under significant cost pressure – physical events are unlikely to be part of the landscape for some time.

Example: virtual innovation through the Incubator

Our Gate One in-house Incubator exemplifies our ideation and prioritisation approaches, resulting in over 400 business ideas and the creation of 15 businesses.

In the past, physical workshops have been a fundamental part of the incubation process. We have now had to pivot to virtual incubation for our own and our clients’ projects, enabling organisations to continue innovating in the face of mounting cost pressures.

Most of the characteristics of incubation can be fully replicated in a virtual environment although, admittedly, some aspects and stages of the process may lend themselves more richly to one approach over another. In our experience, the primary blocker has been mindsets, in particular the belief that physical engagement is absolutely necessary to achieve outcomes.

Interestingly, technology has been less of a constraint, as there are always ways to work around it, for example, one organisation held workshops using purely audio. That said, the majority of tools are highly intuitive and place emphasis on user experience and ease of adoption.

Getting the balance right

In our view, virtual workshops (or virtual incubation) can be just as effective as physical events. There will inevitably be some characteristics of a workshop that are better suited to one environment over the other, but while virtual is different, it can be just as productive when up the learning curve. However, getting up the learning curve requires investment, and when better to start building and investing in virtual capability than when you have a clear burning platform.

Tim Phillips

A remote workshop conducted in a smart way can be as productive as one in person. In our playbook, we give explanations, examples and templates of remote workshop tools and methods.