6 principles for good online workshops and meetings

Guest contribution by | 23.08.2021 | Processes & methods |

Rediscover Learning. Work Smarter.

Holding meetings and organising workshops is part of the daily business of many companies. Word has long since spread that it makes sense, for example,

  • to send out the agenda at least 48 hours before the start of the meeting so that participants can prepare and adjust to the content,
  • to design the agenda in a varied way in order to arouse the interest of the participants and to initiate a qualitative exchange on relevant topics,
  • to clarify active moderation and minute-taking in advance,
  • to start on time (a form of appreciation towards those already present) and to end (earlier than planned if reasonable and possible),
  • to prepare the opening well (especially in case not all participants are present yet)
  • and to choose appropriate methods for the meeting or workshop so that, for example, focused discussions can take place at eye level, ideas can be developed or decisions can be made together.

In addition, it also makes sense to plan generous breaks (rather one too many than one too few), to stick to the agenda, to minimise distractions (does it really make sense to answer e-mails or send messages on the mobile phone at the same time?), to visualise or document the insights gained, to agree on the next steps, tasks and deadlines and to get feedback (what was good, what could be done better, what should we do or not do next time?).

It all sounds understandable, doesn’t it? And now – or since about 1.5 years – (almost) everything takes place online all at once. Of course, this has had and continues to have an impact on cooperation. But what exactly are these effects? And which factors or principles contribute to the success of online workshops and meetings beyond those already mentioned?

Stressors in online workshops and meetings

What stresses you out the most in online workshops or meetings? Maybe take a minute before you read on and think about what typically annoys you, takes your attention away or negatively affects you when working online.

Small tip: Write down your stressors, because this gives you the opportunity to think about what you can do about them – possibly even with relatively little effort – before your next online activity.

You’ve probably heard of Zoom Fatigue, right? Zoom Fatigue refers to the fatigue and exhaustion of people triggered by participating in video conferences.1 According to a recent study by the Institute for Employment and Employability (IEB) and the Ludwigshafen University of Applied Sciences, the following stressors, among others, contribute to Zoom Fatigue2:

  • non-verbal cues or gestures and facial expressions of participants are not perceptible,
  • small talk with other participants or joint networking over coffee is not possible,
  • the flow of conversation is restricted due to latency,
  • participants find it more difficult to concentrate due to the poor sound quality,
  • severe eye strain due to poor picture quality,
  • frustration increases due to unstable internet connections, and
  • the sobriety in the sense of the strong objectification of virtual meetings increases.

Many participants in online workshops and meetings also report that they find it uncomfortable to be watched by many during the exchange. The confrontation with their own video image intensifies this effect even more. Small movements (gestures and facial expressions) play a major role in this, as Professor Jeremy Bailsenson, Director at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at California’s Standford University, confirms. Studies show that technologies like Zoom disrupt familiar communication patterns because people are used to perceiving and interpreting many signals within short moments. In Zoom & Co., however, the latency of the audio and video signal ensures that gestures and confirmation signals from the participants arrive too late. In addition, the many pairs of eyes mean that there is no “real eye contact” and the lack of non-verbal cues means that participants have to make an effort to synchronise with each other. Zoom fatigue is exacerbated by this extra effort, according to Jingjing Han, a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington’s Media School.3

Unfortunately, some of these stressors are hard to eliminate (poor sound and image quality or latency due to insufficient internet connectivity), but others may be (disabling one’s video, having fewer participants per session or shorter sessions). In short, what is practiced and taken for granted in physical meetings needs to be rethought online. This is where the 6 principles for good online workshops and meetings come in.

Small note: I use the so-called Training from the BACK of the Room activities and facilitation techniques by Sharon Bowman for the interactive and dynamic design of workshops.4 The following 6 principles are structured on the basis of brain research.5

Principle 1: Movement is better than sitting still

Many family and home offices are not ergonomically designed. One family member sits at the dining table with a laptop, another at the kitchen table. Height-adjustable desks or back-friendly office chairs are scarce. In addition, there is a lack of small movement units that usually break up the workday when walking from one office to another, on the way to a meeting, gathering in the coffee kitchen or going all the way to the canteen. But exercise and the oxygen it boosts in our blood are important – and not just between meetings. “Sitting is the new smoking!” they say.6 There is a lot of truth in this little sentence.

In my online workshops and meetings, I actively invite participants to

  • stand up and stretch,
  • spend a session standing up,
  • breathe deeply and relax their eyes,
  • do office yoga or to fetch objects from the environment (ideally related to the topic of the meeting, so that they can be used directly as input to the exchange),
  • talk to people on the phone while walking (keyword: walk & talk) or
  • take a walk during the breaks.

Just try it out yourself at the next online encounter. As a facilitator, encourage the participants or, as a participant, simply do it without being asked. You will quickly realise that movement is better than sitting still.

Principle 2: Talking is better than listening

The person who talks, moves or writes the most also learns the most!7

Learning and sharing experiences are social processes. Therefore, invite participants to participate, ask questions and discuss ideas. Right at the beginning of the online workshop or meeting and ideally again and again during the session. The earlier you actively involve the participants, the easier it will be for them to make their own contributions. Note, however, that not all participants like to speak in front of a large group; an effect that is unfortunately intensified by latency. This is where it comes in handy, to organise

  • small group work in digital group rooms,
  • anonymous question rounds, and
  • commenting and voting opportunities.

You can also actively invite participants by asking them to summarise meeting or workshop content.

I like to start my meetings and workshops with an impulse question before the official welcome. For this, I invite the participants in groups of 2 or 3. This gets them talking in the first few minutes. In order for this to work in your setting, you should consider in advance how to get your participants talking. It is important to choose “effective” questions, because facilitators depend on the participants’ feedback. Here it makes a lot of sense to use the possibilities of tools – e.g. in the form of short word or chat contributions or voting.

Principle 3: Being different is better than being ordinary

Which online workshop or online meeting in recent weeks or months do you remember fondly? Probably not many. Among other reasons, this is because the organisation is often very similar and the delivery is rarely particularly relevant or emotional.

Starting a workshop with impulse questions and in small groups is both different and new for many of my participants. Eric Jensen describes in his book Brain-based Learning that new stimuli that appear in our immediate environment with strong emotional intensity immediately grab our attention.8

As a workshop designer, you have the opportunity to increase the attention of the participants. For example, you can use

  • music and figurative language,
  • worksheets or cloze texts,
  • voting and quiz tools.

Cameras can also be used creatively by inviting participants to tape them up, turn them off or hold an object in them.

Small note: Get feedback from colleagues in advance before conducting an unexpected or humorous interaction in the next online encounter, because ideally this activity should be relevant to the content.

Principle 4: Picture is better than word

Bonnie Stewart, assistant professor of online pedagogy and corporate learning at Canada’s University of Windsor, describes the cause of Zoom Fatigue as follows: Switching between different online meetings is like having lunch in one country with certain customs and traditions, and literally having lunch two hours later in another country and with a completely different group that has its own customs and traditions. And you haven’t even left your desk.9 A nice paraphrase, isn’t it?

Basically, it is advisable to use pictures, infographics, sketchnotes, videos, metaphors or stories in (online) workshops and (online) meetings, because they are grasped faster and remembered longer.10 Moreover, practice shows that a picture is worth a thousand words. It helps to bring complicated, purely verbal contributions, processes, figures, data and facts to the point.

Small note: Simple sketchnotes with basic shapes, stick figures and symbols, arrows and frames are a good start to useful visualisation. Before your next meeting or workshop, it is best to think about which comparisons, metaphors or images complement your content to convey intended content or insights.

Principle 5: Taking notes is better than reading along

Are you familiar with the expression “supervised reading”? It describes a situation in which the presenter reads out his or her presentation slides. There are two aspects you should be aware of:

  1. Participants read faster than presenters can read aloud.
  2. Writing your own notes is a more active process than reading information.

What happens when writing your own notes? Information is heard or read, put into one’s own words, written down or visualised. Compared to passively consuming or reading along, this promotes remembering, learning and understanding.

Small hint: I have had good experiences with asking participants to actively take notes. If necessary, offer prepared worksheets and cloze texts. Collectively creating a digital protocol, photographing mind maps or sketches for joint documentation or transferring information to analogue sticky notes as a reminder for future activities are also very useful in my view.

Principle 6: Shorter is better than longer

Do you remember the stressors of online workshops or meetings? Personally, I am not a fan of endless monologues. But what can you do if a participant likes to hear himself talk? John Medina – a molecular biologist specialising in brain development and author of the book Brain Rules – has described the 10-minute rule11:

Something new has to happen every 10 minutes, otherwise our brain activates the energy-saving “autopilot”. This is the moment when we start paying more attention to something new, contrasting, relevant or emotional.

According to Bruce D. Perry, author, therapist and professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, this figure is only three to five minutes!12

And what does this mean for a meeting or workshop design?

  • Break up lecture and presentation parts into small sequences with a maximum duration of 10 minutes.
  • After these 10 minutes, actively address the participants and invite them to participate, reflect or take notes.
  • Use polls or estimation questions, take votes and work with metaphors, stories or other visualisations.

Small hint: Larger presentation phases can also be reduced by pre- and post-processing tasks of an online workshop or meeting. Short videos, screencasts, podcasts and templates to fill in serve as reminders, repetition or reinforcement of the content and can thus consolidate knowledge. (Note: Yes, not all participants will come to the meeting prepared. Therefore, it is worthwhile to design the materials created in such a way that they are also suitable as an arrival exercise or can (partly) be worked on during a break.)

Conclusion

There are similarities and differences between onsite and online workshops and meetings. Gianpiero Petriglieri, a physician, psychiatrist and professor of organisational behaviour at the French business school Insead, nicely summarises the way people experience online workshops and meetings: ‘When people who otherwise don’t have the opportunity to see each other come together online, it’s an opportunity. When people who regularly meet in person use video conferencing, it is a disappointment.13

In other words: Take advantage of the opportunity when you bring people together. Provide physical and mental movement, let participants interact, do something different, use images, visualisations and stories, encourage active learning and design short sessions. These 6 principles will help you. Good luck with trying them out.

 

Notes:

You can download a nice reminder of the 6 principles in German here: https://kilearning.net/6Lernprinzipien.pdf

Julian Kea offers regular Trainings from the BACK of the Room. Take a look, it’s definitely worth it.

[1] What is Zoom Fatigue?
[2] Rump, J. & Brandt, M. (2020). Zoom-Fatigue – Phase 2. Eine Studie des Instituts für Beschäftigung und Employability IBE, S. 16 [called on: 8 March 2021]
[3] The Advisory Board Company (2020). ‘Zoom fatigue,’ explained by researchers, o.S. [called on: 8 March 2021]
[4] Bowman, S. (2009). Training From the BACK of the Room!: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sibs, Inc.
[5] Bowman, S. (2011). Using Brain Science To Make Training Stick. Glenbrook; Bowperson Publishing, page 42 cont.
[6] Starrett, K. (2016). Sitzen ist das neue Rauchen. München: riva Verlag
[7] Bowman, S. (2015). Who’s doing the most talking, moving, or writing? [called on: 8 March 2021]
[8] Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching. Thousand Oaks: Corwin
[9] Supiano, B. (2020). Why is Zoom so exhausting? [called on: 8 March 2021]
[10] Medina, J. (2009). Worth a thousand words. [called on: 8 March 2021]
[11] Medina, J. (2009). The 10 Minute Rule.
[12] Perry, B. (o. D.). How the Brain Learns Best. [called on: 8 March 2021]
[13] Supiano, B. (2020). Why is Zoom so exhausting? [called on: 8 March 2021]

This article first appeared in its German original form on 30 July 2021 in the 12th anthology of the GABAL Association: Digitale Arbeitswelten – 14 Impulse für Veränderungen in einer digitalisierten Arbeitswelt.

Julian Kea has published another post on the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Lego im Unternehmen

Lego im Unternehmen

Julian Kea

Julian Kea

Julian Kea is a serious games facilitator and team coach from Berlin. He creates activating learning environments with minds-on workshop methods such as Training from the BACK of the Room, LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, Agile Classrooms, Thiagi’s interactive training strategies, Open Space Technology, and Liberating Structures and of course Training from the BACK of the Room. These enable teams to share authentically, promote mutual understanding and strengthen collaboration. His mantra is “Rediscover Learning. Work Smarter.”

In addition, Julian Kea is the voice behind the #SeriousGamesPodcast and the creator of #TheDebriefingCube. He organises the #LSPmeetup around LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® and the unconference #play14 around serious games in Berlin.