Virtual workshops can be measurably better than physical workshops if you have the stamina of a bull, can work in three time zones simultaneously, and have the technical dexterity of a 12-year-old. For the rest of us, there’s work to be done to master the craft.

For context, we’ve been building go-to-market plans for B2B companies, large and small, around the world for 20 years. This planning is usually carried out in a workshop setting; we’ve done about 500 physical workshops (or ‘Funnel Camps’) – usually 2-3 days in duration – in some 30 countries. We’ll typically have between 6 and 12 participants plus a single facilitator, sometimes with an extra colleague in the room capturing notes and/or contributing to the discussion.

We’d always been reluctant to take Funnel Camps virtual. But like the rest of the world, that reluctance had to be overcome at warp speed. In the last six months we’ve run perhaps a dozen workshops remotely. We’ve had feedback from participants from SAP and Amazon (who had attended both the original physical workshops and now the remote ones) is that the remote workshops are actually better.

Sure, we’ve had to invest, to iterate, and we’ve lost some functionality. But we’ve gained some too.

What’s working better?

  • Derivative input

Although our design thinking techniques (sticky notes and coloured dots) were collaborative, we’re finding the depth and quality of candidate ideas for each topic is better online than in a room. I’d guestimate a 20% lift.

  • Building a narrative

Previously, we had reams of flip chart paper up on the walls and used those to reveal the progressive clarity that emerged in workshops. Now we’re outputting the Funnel Plan (1-page plan and 20-page presentation of the same) multiple times within each workshop. This delivers clarity on the decisions made thus far, but also excites the participants about an end goal that they can see coming together. Workshops can be taxing, but if participants can feel a story coming together, it’s easier to stay motivated.

  • Participation of key stakeholders.

Removing the necessity for travel and splitting the workshops into five half days (rather than three full days) has enabled us to rope in key experts more readily than before.

  • Room hire cost = zero

Someone, somehow, always has to pay for a room good enough for the planning workshops. It’s either a variable cost (book a hotel) or a fixed one (baked into the original spec for a new office) but it’s undoubtedly a cost. Remote workshops don’t require anything that is not already needed for business as usual.

  • Everyone sees everyone.

Crazy thing, but in a typical oval or rectangular table we usually see half of the people well and the other half poorly. And we can’t hear that guy at the end. On Zoom, we’re each of us looking at each of us, and we can hear everyone.

What’s worse?

  • 20 hours of Zoom is exhausting.

Even though we’ve broken the workshops into 5 half days and are taking decent breaks, the draining effect is still strong.

  • The temptation to clear email – even for the facilitator.

Quiet moments in workshops are often occasions for the deepest, richest thinking. They are also the occasions when a quick alt-tab to Outlook becomes a serious disengagement. To minimise this, we’ve been taking breaks every hour, and promising that loudly and often in return for focused attention.

  • The need for more tech.

More on that later, but we definitely need more tools.

  • Stilted conversations.

You’ve been on Zoom enough to know what I mean by this. The tech isn’t yet good enough to allow parallel discussions, so we have to do a virtual handover of the microphone to the next speaker, and that can be a little staccato.

What’s about the same?

  • Structure of thinking.

We were already fans of “The wisdom of crowds” and had structured our workshops to harness the aggregate of genuinely independent thought. This requires the facilitator to be super clear about phasing:

      • When are you collecting ideas?
      • When are you analysing those ideas?
      • When are you culling / prioritising?
      • When are you deciding?

And whichever of those modes we are in, we collect inputs individually and present the aggregate back to the group. We’ve kept that in the online experience.

  • Costs, and therefore price.

Some clients imagined that removing the requirement for us to travel to their city/country would lessen the overall time cost and hence price. That’s not been our experience. We often need to vend in a second consultant for remote workshops where previously the cost of travel allowed us to defend the presence of only one. So, if anything, our costs have increased- although only a little.

Lessons we’ve learned

  1. Over-communicate.

Participants in workshops have become used to turning up to a meeting or workshop without sufficient clarity about task or preparation needed. With the all-remote world that’s initially been foisted on us (and is now perhaps being embraced), we are finding that workshops shift from “are we all here?” to “go” much faster than in a room, so participants need better clarity in advance. I’ve got in the habit of sending the following:

  • One email 2 weeks out with the basic intent and key logistics (dates and times mostly).
  • Another email few days out letting them know to not worry too much about mechanics – details will come soon. I do this to ward off premature questions.
  • One email the day before with any necessary mechanics (e.g. links to Zoom, and a request to have cameras on the whole time)
  • A final email on the day of the workshop reminding about start times.
  • Once we’re going, we use Intercom (in-app chat plus inbound and outbound messages) within Funnel Plan to open up a dialogue so they can ask questions of clarity without disrupting the workshop. We can also push messages to participants this way.
  • We use Zoom for all-hands chats. I know that Zoom allows private chats as well, but we found the best combination was for Intercom for discussions about the process and Zoom chat for ideas for the wider group.
  1. Go all remote, or all together, never hybrid.

If one person is not in the room, then none are in the room. The normal dynamic of side conversations is hard enough to manage when we’re all in the room together. For the one person who’s remote, they are debilitating.

  1. Get the tech right, and practice using and switching between the tools.

Invest about 10 times more time in mastering these skills than you think you need. You and your participants need a quiet room, good internet, and decent earphones at a minimum. On top of that, I am using:

  • Funnel Plan for go-to-market planning. We’ve embedded Zoom into Funnel Plan so the meeting automatically invites and includes all those registered to collaborate on the specific plan we’re building. We’ve also heavily modified the tool to enable and encourage multi-user inputs and multi-user voting on options within the planning experience.
  • Zoom. Although we have clients who prefer Teams, Chime, WebEx and Blue Jeans, we’re defaulting to Zoom. Chime integration with Funnel Plan is coming. We make good use of breakout rooms in Zoom. I’ll have a little more to say on this later.
  • Jabra Evolve 75 headset. It has active noise cancelling which removes most background noise if I am in an open office (should I ever be allowed back in one) and by placing the mic close to my mouth, removes that horrid echo that the wooden floors in my home office would otherwise cause. I played with a lapel mic and the standard PC speakers for a while but quickly wore the 3.5mm plug out. I also experimented with earbuds (Jabra Elite 75T) and although they are great, I reverted to the great sound and daggy looks of a headset.
  • Stand-up desk. I found that my energy was too low when sitting at the desk facilitating, and that standing kept me at the energy level I was used to when facilitating in an old-school room. I also found that I preferred facilitating standing up and sitting for deep work – the mix was good and I’m probably going to be up for the cost of a large number of adjustable desks for the team when we return to a physical space.
  • Windows 10’s ‘Windows Ink Workspace’ for whiteboards. I have a Surface Pro and have found it easiest if my main screen is the 27″ monitor I have on my stand-up desk, and I lie the Surface Pro flat to allow me to draw on it using the Surface pen. This works for the same reasons physical whiteboards do.
  1. Plan break-outs in advance.

As mentioned earlier, Zoom’s breakout rooms work well once understood. Breakouts allow sub-groups to assemble – even roping in cameo contributors – to simultaneously solve parts of the planning puzzle. This has proven to be a great way to catch up time. We break up tasks that might have been solved en masse, and solve them simultaneously in sub-groups. While the outcome might arguably be less, this has worked better than dropping a topic or two or scheduling additional sessions on those occasions when time was against us.

  1. Design the flow of the discussion.

I’m restating here something from the ‘about the same’ list above because had we not already had that flow baled into the Funnel Camps, I’d be arguing its necessity now. Be deliberate about when you are opening up to ideas, and when you are closing them down, and let all participants in on that flow. The details argued earlier in this article are all key.

  1. Manage that flow.

As facilitator, I have found it key to be very directed about whose opinion we want next, and when participants should be thinking, voting, or inputting solo. Questions thrown to the group (“so, what do we all think?”) generate too little or too much input. In contrast, what has worked well is pulling the opinions of each participant one at a time – when needed – summarising, and then asking for “any last ideas?”. We still need a bit of unplanned input, hence that question, but let it be the icing, not the cake.