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Facilitating Workshops During Times of Uncertainty

by Michelle Ruiz

There aren’t many agencies that can say they endured a devastating tornado and global pandemic in the space of one month. It’s almost like being an EGOT, but a lot less fun. With the local tornado, we immediately took our work remote, and started planning for virtual workshops and working sessions but still had client spaces kindly available to hold these sessions. The pandemic a week later had everyone including our clients working in their own homes, thus creating an interesting global experiment in how to craft and iterate this new way of working together.

The noun definition of a workshop is “a place where things are made or repaired” and while that may be referencing a physical space, I like to think that applies to workshops at large during this time. It may be challenging to see in the grand scheme of a global crisis, and yet I find them not only an opportunity to solve a common business problem but also a way for the participants to be with one other. Connect, question, create, contemplate, and all the other aspects that make group work so enriching to be a part of. In addition, people being at home is a great opportunity to know our clients in a context otherwise unavailable in a formal setting. Recently in a session, we had a stakeholder’s dog jump into the frame which offered up laughs, connection, and levity. 

Taking care of a group and managing the needs and energy of others is hard enough when you are trying to take care of yourself in a climate of uncertainty. Planning a workshop experience that benefits the group and that doesn’t over-exert the team is a delicate balance in non-crisis times, so add the current layer of complexity and you’ve got yourself quite the mix. If you’re curious, here are a few virtual workshop learnings our team has discovered these past few weeks: 

  • Check-Ins: We love to do a check-out of some sort to get everyone’s snapshot reflection, or a check-in as an icebreaker at times. During these weeks it’s also important to periodically check in with the group during the workshop to see if they need an extra break, how everyone is doing, and so on. Non-verbal, physical cues are more difficult to pick up in a video—so just ask. 
  • The Rules (Kinda) Don’t Apply: Like general workshop best practice, we have rules of the day we like to set in place at the beginning of the day to help encourage open group behaviors. For a remote workshop, that might include asking guests to be in a quiet, uninterrupted space to join the session. However, right now people may be taking care of family, pets, and have varied living situations we may not be aware of. So being understanding and acknowledging this at the beginning of the workshop will encourage more trust. 
  • Distracted? Blame Hawaii: Many are distracted right now. Whether it’s a ping they are getting on their screens or the grocery run they need to make later. It happens, and now more than ever. We’ve recently adopted MURAL’s internal team norm of letting others know “Sorry, I was in Hawaii” for a lighthearted way to acknowledge you spaced out for a second and reset focus back to the workshop.
  • Coming Attractions: Easing participants’ anxiety ahead of the workshop about what to expect is a quick win and a great way to establish confidence before they even switch on the camera. This includes clarifying what tools will be used, and anything expected of them (materials to have handy, phone use, etc).
  • Sync Up: Time differences are an opportunity to try energy-saving asynchronous work if needed. That is, tools or items that can be done individually. This might look like sending any video links, articles etc. ahead of time for participants to browse to then bring their insights into the real-time, synchronous workshop. 
  • Less, Not More: With current non-work obligations also woven into everyone’s day, setting realistic goals for the number of exercises that will be covered is helpful for both the team and the clients. We discovered fewer activities crammed into the agenda replaced by ones that have more robust, collaborative content or value, will help keep the workshop objectives on track. 

There will always be unknowns that pop up in any physical or remote setting, so remembering that overall, there is no playbook for how to manage unprecedented work and emotional conditions such as these. The most important thing is to empathize with the people and conditions in which you are facilitating, flow with the process, trust the group and especially yourself. 

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