20 April 2020

Workshops in an age of COVID and lockdown

Our experience of conducting an engaging and entertaining online workshop

By Scarlet George

Screenshot taken by Warren Smith (GDS) of the Jamboard asking participants to define GESI and GESI ICT procurement

Screenshot taken by Warren Smith (GDS) of the Jamboard asking participants to define GESI and GESI ICT procurement

COVID-19 has thrown a lot at us and we’re all struggling to stay motivated and be ‘productive’! Thankfully, there’s a lot of reading material out there about how to look after our mental health. But while we are trying to take care of ourselves and our teams, we’ve still got to create some kind of normality and get the job done.

Before COVID-19 came crashing down on us, we had undertaken to deliver an in-person workshop with 30 people over three hours for UK Government Digital Service on how to take a more gender responsive and socially inclusive approach to ICT procurement. Our participants would be part of teams, working on other projects for UK Global Digital Marketplace, on ICT procurement. So, it was already an ambitious plan. Trying to convince people to mainstream gender equality and social inclusion (GESI for short) is hard at the best of times. Even with an enthusiastic Oxford Insights team and a great client, we knew this was going to be a challenge. But with COVID in the mix, we suddenly felt we were shooting for the impossible.

Keeping people engaged and having fun in a workshop can always be a challenge but suddenly having to conduct it online, we were worried participants would simply switch off (both literally and figuratively). While we were pretty sure of the content and the outcome we wanted from the workshop – sharing learnings and working together to create ways to include GESI in the other work on ICT procurement – we wondered how to conduct the workshop.

As it turned out it went really well. The client was happy, the participants engaged, and we achieved our goals. As online workshops look like being with us for a good while yet, I thought it would be helpful to share how we went about it and lessons learnt.

To plan, we sat down together (virtually of course) to discuss the pain points of workshops and how these could be amplified in a virtual setting; people talking over one another, only hearing from a few voices, lack of engagement with the content, etc. We needed to plan how to be inclusive and keep people engaged.

To begin with we decided to create a very detailed idea of what the workshop would aim to achieve and how it would be conducted. This was a bit more detailed in comparison to our in-person workshops where we can more easily ‘go with the flow’. We shared these with the client and the participants in advance so they knew exactly what to expect. We also defined clear roles and responsibilities for the four of us conducting the workshop. One person would chair, focusing on keeping everyone engaged while facilitating the bulk of the workshop. The three others were tasked with presenting clearly defined topics and engaging in discussions on their area of expertise. One of the three was also tasked to facilitate the empowerment of people’s voices by flagging questions, points of interest and logging things we didn’t have a chance to address during the workshop. Anticipating the tech working against us, we agreed that if technical issues prevented any of us from being able to perform our role, one of us would pick up their responsibilities and continue with the workshop.

We established clear ‘rules’ designed to ensure everyone would feel empowered – and listened to –  throughout the workshop.

These were:

  • Everyone on mute, except the person talking

  • Adding questions and comments either in the online video chat box, or in the Jamboard (more on that later)

  • One person from each team to be nominated as the one who would introduce their team and their work

 We were nervous about the ‘rules’; we didn’t want people to feel like they were being treated like children but we did want to make sure everyone had the opportunity to speak and feel comfortable. As luck had it the participants were great, respected the rules and came with a collaborative mindset.

When the workshop began, we also made sure to communicate that we all have different demands when working at home. Whether looking after children, relatives, needing to use the bathroom or anything else that may take us away from staring at an online workshop. We wanted people to feel comfortable and know if they needed to, they could leave their desk or exit the workshop; no questions asked.

We also used a couple of tools to keep people engaged, the primary (and what we considered when planning the workshop, the most important tool) was Jamboard and the secondary tool was music.

Jamboard is a Google online whiteboard tool which enables you to write notes, draw ideas and even add sticky notes (this isn’t sponsored, I promise, we just loved the tool!). Before the workshop we built our Jamboards, creating one board for each activity. This enabled us to clearly indicate which board we would be using for each activity. When it came time for people to contribute ideas and collaborate, the information they needed was already there. Just as we would do in person, many of our activities focused on asking people to contribute ideas on sticky notes so we could then have a group discussion. An example: we asked everyone to come up with their own definitions of GESI and GESI ICT procurement, so we could discuss each one to help build on the definition we had already prepared.

It’s a relief to say it all went as planned. Everyone contributed enthusiastically and we got some great ideas.

A major concern during planning was that this collaboration time would be awkward and silent. With everyone on mute and taking five minutes to write their ideas, we thought this could be made much easier with music. One of us would play music through our phone into the call, creating a good, easy-going mood.

We tested this in advance and it wasn’t great. We tried string music, Disney songs and other musical genres but they just didn’t seem to work for us. It was only a few hours before the workshop that we started to think about just what sort of music, songs and artists could relate to our work on GESI. We searched lists of songs written and performed by artists that focused on empowerment and stumbled across Aretha Franklin’s name. That proved a light-bulb moment – our workshop would be spurred on by Franklin’s powerful voice and empowering anthems! Initially, our thought was that music was a ‘nice to have’, now Franklin’s songs became the thing that motivated everyone and kept the workshop fun and engaging.

So what are the lessons learnt here?

  1. Music is key! Using interesting and fun ideas to bring some liveliness to your online workshops is always a great idea, they’ll help keep people engaged and give them something to laugh about!

  2. Have clear rules focused on empowering participants, not shutting them out.

  3. Plan, plan, plan! We planned for as many issues as we could, from technical problems, to lack of engagement from participants, helping us pivot when necessary and all remain on the same page.

  4. Communicate with participants in advance so they know what to expect (we could have done this a little sooner, so we’d recommend doing this as soon as possible!).

  5. Use online tools like Jamboard, so that people can collaborate in real time and can easily discuss their ideas.

  6. Set out clear roles for everyone conducting the workshop, so they know when to speak and which parts they are leading. While this is of course important in any workshop, there are no body language cues when you’re online, so knowing when it’s your turn to speak and lead is really important.

I hope this was helpful to any online workshops you’re planning in future! Please get in contact with me if you’d like to discuss these ideas further and need more tips. Contact us.


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