As for many research programmes, institutions and teams around the world, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to online working has forced us all to think differently about how to bring people ‘together’ for meetings, training events and workshops in 2020.
Each year, the Thanzi la Onse programme holds a face-to-face International Project Workshop, to reunite programme collaborators and stakeholders across the UK and East Africa to share insight into programme progress, regional health priorities and policy needs and map out focus areas and key activities for the project (read more about the 2019 Project Workshop here).
However, this year, in line with the COVID-19 guidance and restrictions around travel and in-person meetings, the decision was made to adapt the format of the 2020 event and hold it as an entirely virtual conference.
At such a pivotal time in the programme (entering the final 18 months), the timing of the event was crucial and placed greater importance on finding a way to mirror the ‘feel’ of an in-person event – to gather together as a group and collectively share ideas and insight; but through a virtual platform.
The experience of (quickly) designing and delivering a virtual workshop from scratch has enabled us to develop a blueprint for how we will facilitate similar collaborative, international online events in future.
Below are the top 10 things we have learned from the process:
(1) Set the date(s): whilst in-person events are usually held over several consecutive days, with all participants gathered together as a group in one location, this may not necessarily be the best structure for a virtual event. Spreading out each workshop session with one or two days in between, or keeping sessions shorter (e.g. holding a series of half-day rather than full-day sessions), helps to avoid ZOOM fatigue and offers a more flexible structure for participants with other commitments. This also gives the opportunity to type up and share any minutes and circulate materials before the next session starts.
(2) Share collaborative materials: creating and sharing workshop materials in an accessible and editable format (e.g. Google Drive) can be an effective way to encourage direct input from participants and ensure that everyone can access materials before, during and after the event. This also means that files can easily be shared using links – rather than bulky email attachments – and updated collaboratively as ‘live’ documents during the virtual event itself (i.e. substitute the tried-and-tested “flip-chart and sticky note” approach).
(3) Plan for technical issues: there is a chance that sessions may be disrupted by bandwidth or internet connectivity issues (especially if participants are dialling in from different countries), or participants may need to drop out of calls unexpectedly due to unforeseen circumstances. Being flexible with timings and building in plenty of ‘buffer’ time helps the workshop activities stay on track, should any technical issues arise. Also, holding a technical run-through of the full workshop schedule 1 week before the event proved to be an extremely useful exercise, to preempt issues which may cause disruption and find solutions in advance. The Zoom support page has lots of advice on holding meetings and webinars, audio, video and sharing and even resources on effectively using Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(4) Assemble the support team: in our case, we had three facilitators who coordinated the workshop activities, programme communications and technical set-up on the day, and found that this balance also worked well throughout the planning process, to collectively map-out logistical arrangements and find creative solutions.
- Technical Support: admitting participants, answering technical queries during the call, launching activities using virtual tools, managing recordings
- Chair Support: supporting presenters and chairs during talks and Q&A sessions, answering chair-related queries, coordinate ‘follow-up’ activities
- Note-Taker: creating ‘live’ minutes during discussions, presentations and Q&A sessions
Facilitators chose to keep in touch via a dedicated channel (e.g. a Slack channel), to avoid any disruption or confusion during the live Zoom call.
(5) Hold pre-calls: starting the online event 30 minutes early provided the opportunity for all chairs and presenters to get together to run through the agenda, speak with the Technical Support about any final queries and test out audio, webcam and screen-sharing arrangements.
(6) Share information ‘packs’: to reduce the amount of communications with participants, and keep information organised in one place, information ‘packs’ were shared with all participants and chairs before the workshop, which summarised the key session details.
- Participants: the full workshop agenda, copies of presentation slides, dial-in information and joining instructions (acknowledging that participants may come to the call with varied virtual meeting experience, or may be less familiar with certain software, these were particularly useful in providing information and advice on how to test audio, set a participant name and share a screen)
- Chairs: all of the above, plus ‘chairs notes’ to outline workshop session arrangements and plans
(7) Prioritise objectives: by identifying the key ‘cornerstone’ objectives which must be achieved during the workshop, this helped to establish where time should be focussed during the workshop and agree the ‘end goals’ for the whole event. Over-estimating the time needed for each discussion and planning in ‘buffer time’ also worked well, to absorb over-runs during key discussions and allow pockets of time to address lower priority objectives. We also decided to set-up a virtual ‘whiteboard’, to capture any information to be revisited at a later date, which helped to keep conversations on-track.
(8) Use a combination of virtual tools: despite not being able to gather together in person, we were keen to make sure that all teams could engage with each other openly, as a group, during the workshop. With this in mind, we planned a variety of different activities using a programme we were all familiar with (Zoom), to mirror the formats used during in-person workshops; giving programme partners the opportunity to contribute to discussions as presenters, panellists or participants. Activities included:
- Open discussions
- Panel sessions
- Virtual ‘poster’ presentations using infographic PowerPoint presentations
- Breakout groups
- Online polls
(9) Schedule breaks: these do not have to be long, but by scheduling in a couple of 5-10 minute breaks, this gave participants the chance to make a drink, take a break from the screen and gather some initial thoughts ahead of the next session. These also become a useful moment for chairs to speak with the support team to clarify any key points or ‘chat box’ comments which should be addressed.
(10) Post-workshop reflection: starting this conversation at the end of the workshop (e.g. using an interactive Poll) was a useful way to collectively recap the discussion topics, prioritise follow-up activities and agree the ‘next steps’. It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the workshop itself and gather feedback from participants on what had been most useful.
Read more about the 2020 Thanzi la Onse International Project Workshop here.
By: Steph Richards | August 2020