Face-to-face workshops are back. Or are they?

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Group of people sitting around a table talking

I got so excited when I was asked to run a face-to-face workshop. I hadn’t run one since 2019, before the pandemic changed our lives.

For the last 16 months it had been all virtual and Zoom. At last, I had the opportunity to go back to what I knew best. Face-to-face facilitation. The client did say that they would be adopting COVID Safe protocols. That sounded good as well. The reality turned out to be far removed from the face-to-face workshops I used to run.

The room was the size of a tennis court. It could seat 200 people. The 24 people I had were sitting, spread out, five to a table, in each of the four corners of the room. A camera hung in one of the corners caught my every move for the group of four from interstate. Their image was projected onto the two small screens mounted on the far wall. I was left standing in the middle of the room, far away from the participants, my notes, laptop and the screens. I was COVID Safe and socially-distanced.

My first workshop since the pandemic: ‘Face-to-space’

One of the participants had a laptop. They volunteered to manage my slide presentation. Whenever I nodded, they clicked to the next slide. I gave my presentation from the middle of the room, pivoting again and again to ensure I didn’t have my back turned to anyone for too long. I raised my voice so it reached the far corners of the room and was picked up by the microphone and carried interstate.

Luckily, I knew my content and was able to adapt on the fly. I gave up with the slides as no one could read them. I focused on the few paper handouts I had brought with me, just in case. I also gave up on small group discussions as the participants were spread out on their tables, unwilling to get closer. Three participants wore masks, hiding their reactions and muffling their voices. I talked and pivoted for close to 90 minutes before I was able to grab a seat and stop, still in the middle of the room.

I began to think that virtual workshops were not that bad after all. Next time I run a face-to-space workshop, I will come better prepared.

A changing reality for facilitators, managers and participants

In this instance, the face-to-space workshop had both in-person and virtual participants. This hybrid format is likely to persist long beyond COVID-19 becoming a distant memory. With a large number of employees indicating they would like to continue working from home more, offices shrinking and policies changing, hybrid gatherings really are the ‘new normal’. 

As a facilitator, this means changing the way we engage people and present information. As a manager it means changing how we manage people, lead and cultivate collaboration and innovation. As a participant, it means understanding how we get the most from a meeting or presentation, even when we might be hundreds or thousands of kilometres away.    

A hybrid workshop checklist

  • Room size and shape – Knowing this will help you determine the best way to set up on the day. Based on the shape of the room, you may place tables/seating in a different way and think about where your virtual conferencing equipment will be. 
  • Sound/audio projection – The worst part about being virtual is struggling to hear either the presenter or questions from participants. Ensure you can project loud enough, or seek a microphone if required. It’s also a good idea to repeat questions from the group before answering in case virtual participants miss what’s said in the room. 
  • Lighting, windows, walls – Remaining engaged as a virtual participant can be difficult, especially when emails are a click away and the temptation to multi-task is ripe. By having great lighting and keeping away from windows which face busy streets you’ll better engage everyone involved. 
  • Projection screens, equipment, location – Projection screens are important for everyone to understand what you’re speaking to. It also keeps you from straying too far off your content. Just don’t forget to share your screen for virtual participants! 
  • Number of participants – It may sound obvious, but knowing how many participants will be both in the room and online will change how you present and what preparation is required. Try to get the expected number at least a few days before you present. 
  • Participant location, in room, remote, in groups, individual – Another caveat around your virtual participants is whether they are in groups or as individuals. For example, you may have a group connected from an interstate office, and ensuring they have access to materials (if necessary) will be important. Make sure you make it very clear what participants will need to bring (e.g. laptop) and remind them on the day. 
  • Handouts, discussions – If you have any exercises or handouts that you will be using, it’s good to have these ready (perhaps on your desktop) to share with the virtual group – or even better ask them to print them prior to the meeting or event. If there will be discussion groups, think about how you will structure these based on the split of virtual and in person participants. 

While there may be more preparation involved, when you have got the answers to these and other questions you are ready to hold a successful hybrid workshop. The Whole Brain® Model can also be used as a way to prepare for better meetings and workshops. Most people present in their own ‘language’, forgetting how to engage the rest of the people in (and out) of the room. You can learn more about Whole Brain® Thinking and how to speak to different ways of thinking below.