12 Lessons learned from running a full day virtual workshop
On the 28th July Engage2 ran a full-day virtual workshop for 87 engagement professionals turning in from governments across Australia and New Zealand, The 2020 ANZ EngageTech Forum.
It was quite a ride! Ambitious and necessary, and both thrilling and challenging. We put ourselves out there, to learn from and with our peers in the engagement community. Everyone involved developing their virtual and digital engagement capabilities. I am proud of what we co-created and grateful for the support and encouragement of those who participated.
In this post we will openly share what engage2 learned through this process, the decisions we made about tools and why, how we tested them, adapted to challenges in real-time and what we would do differently.
First, I would like to recognise the agility of my team. I am proud of the way we made decisions, handled adversity and communicated while under pressure. I am also pleased with the experience that we were able to deliver with the tools and processes we could control. We did the best we could do with the budget, resources and tools available for virtual engagement.
Secondly, let me say that we recognise that the experience for our participants was not always smooth and that the experience certainly was not the same for everyone.
Access and inclusion was an issue. In this case, mostly because of the different layers of security / organisational permissions to use the tool available for virtual engagement. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem that is easy to fix. It will continue to be a challenge for anyone trying to engage stakeholders and communities using these tools. Fortunately, we have now experienced these challenges together. I hope that those of you involved and affected learned from the lessons that we learned while engaging you.
If you were involved and you have not given us feedback yet, please do so before the end of August. We would like to continue improving the Forum so that it offers value to our engagement community. Please see our post-event participant email with a link to the survey.
The workshop format
The EngageTech Forum is a full day peer-to-peer learning event. A workshop with multiple formats so that participants can share and discuss information, experiences and lessons and reflect on what they are learning independently and together. The 2020 ANZ Forum was our sixth Forum, our first run as a full-day virtual event. The format included:
- An opening presentation from an international digital engagement expert.
- A panel discussion with four public servants using technology to help transform the way governments across Australia and New Zealand engage.
- A virtual world café where participants could choose the breakout rooms that interested them and discuss different types of engagement technologies and their experiences using the tools and lessons they had learned.
- A series of short hot topics presentations about EngageTech: virtual reality / augmented reality, engagement data and sensemaking, participatory budgeting and scaling change.
- Show and play sessions hosted by four engagement technology software providers.
- A range of methods to enable question and answers, encourage individual and small group reflection, and breakout room reporting.
The technologies we used
Marketing and selling tickets to the Forum
We promoted the Forum:
- On Engage2’s website, social media platforms, our blog and newsletters and emails to people in our network.
- Through network marketing – our partners, Forum sponsors and friends let others know about the event through their social media channels, emails and newsletters.
We sold tickets on Humanitix, which donates its ticket fee to charity. This platform also allowed us to ask buyers questions about what they wanted to get out of the Forum and accessibility requirements etc.
Lesson 1 – Ask people that register whether they have access to / accessibility issues with specific technologies. Some organisations block access to certain software or have security settings that do not allow access to cameras and microphones. If this is the case, these users will need to request permission to access and use tools on work computers from their Information Technology (IT) teams.
Engaging participants before the event and sending ‘tickets’
Humanitix sent the person buying the tickets a confirmation email. These buyers could also elect to send the ‘ticket’ to the other participants they were registering. They could also add the event to their calendar when buying the ticket on the site or after receiving the confirmation email.
If we had included a link in that email confirmation ticket holders would have been able to share it, which means that the $230 ticket could be have been on-sold and shared. Not including a link to the event meant that we had to communicate with ticket holders before the event, which we liked.
We sent two emails to the participants before the event. The first to let them know:
- That we would be sharing their LinkedIn profiles with other participants.
- What to expect during the Forum and how they could participate on the day and prepare to participate.
- When to expect a second email from us with a link for the event.
- That we would be running an optional tech orientation at 9 am on the day on The Forum for participants who wanted to learn about the systems we were using for the virtual engagement.
- Who to contact if they had any questions, issues and to let us know if there was anything specific they wanted to get out of the Forum.
- Give them phone and email contacts in case they had any issues before or during the event.
It also allowed us to ask them what they wanted out of the Forum again, encouraging a sense of intentional investment.
We used these communications to build rapport, relationships, and a sense of community. We demonstrated that we were approachable pre-empting issues and keen to and keen to help. Asking participants to share what they wanted out of the Forum gave us input we could use on the detailed design elements of the event and helped us to brief the speakers, facilitators and our coordinators to deliver a tailored experience. Encouraging engagement beforehand was also our subtle way of including participants and asking them to invest their time intentionally and participate fully if they wanted to get the most out of the Forum.
Our final email contained a personalised URL (weblink) to an event microsite (a mini-website inside the Engage2 website) where they could log into to access a secure environment. Each URL was unique to the participants – effectively making it their ticket. Participants could use this URL to log into the microsite on a single device at a time, so if shared, only one user could access the microsite using the URL at a time.
We sent participants their unique URL four days before the Forum (or as soon as possible if they registered if after that date) and asked them to test logging into the microsite before the event. All participants except one had their URL at least 24 hours, and one business day, before the event.
The URL’s were sent as hyperlinks in emails, not as full URL’s. A small number of recipients (10 / 87) had email servers that scrambled these URLs for security reasons so that they did not work. All of the participants with issues accessing their URLs were from the same state, working for government organisations or statutory authorities with the same email and IT systems and security. Unfortunately, this issue was not apparent until 9am on the day of the Forum, during the tech orientation.
My team were watching their email and waiting by the phone, and quickly diagnosed the issue. We had three staff were available to manage these issues – one on email, one engaging in the tech orientation and the third identifying issues and letting the team know how to address and communicate them to participants. All of these participants were able to join the Forum when it started.
Lesson 2 – Send full URL’s not hyperlinks just in case.
Lesson 3 – Run a technology orientation twice before the event, with at least two days to support participants with accessibility issues.
Lesson 4 – You need a team! For a full-day interactive event with multiple formats and tools we recommend having:
- A producer to manage the team and an assist to support them with communication with the master facilitator and master coordinator at all times.
- A master facilitator, and facilitators for each breakout room.
- A master coordinator and coordinators for breakout rooms if you need to modify tech settings during sessions or participants can not be ‘brought back’ to the main room automatically by the master coordinator.
- Tech support lead, and two people to support them with phone and email communications.
The Forum microsite
When participants logged into the microsite, they gained access to a welcome page, participants page with photos and links to the LinkedIn profiles of participants and an interactive agenda.
The interactive agenda made it possible for us to provide links for all sessions so that people leaving the event for meetings etc or joining us late, could look for the session being run at any given time and click a link to join it.
It also meant that we could provide just one single link to participants before the event to simplify their experience.
Participants told us they loved being able to see other participants and connect during the event. Having access to these photos was especially useful when people turned off their cameras during the Forum. It was also the only way we were able to facilitate one-on-one connections, and networking during the Forum, aside from engagement during breakout sessions.
Lesson 5 – Provide alternative ways for participants to see and connect during the event.
Technologies used for virtual engagement
After logging into the microsite, participants were able to access an agenda with links to specific sessions and a help page with contacts for support and instructions for the various tools used.
During the Forum we used Zoom and Video Facilitator for video conferencing and breakout rooms, and Mural and Google Slides to record and invite input in real-time.
Some participants needed to get permission to use Zoom on their government computers. A few were only able to access Zoom from personal computers or personal zoom accounts.
Zoom allowed us to send participants to breakout rooms, then bring them back to the main room. There are two ways to send participants to breakout rooms in Zoom – randomly, or by allocating them to groups/rooms. Unfortunately, this means that participants can not choose rooms or move freely between them. As a result, we only used Zoom for the start of the day, and the last part of the day.
At the start of the event, we sent participants into rooms of three random participants so that they could reflect on the opening presentations and get to know each other. Then after the panel session, we sent participants into ten breakout groups of nine people so that they could co-develop a question with the support of one of our breakout facilitators.
Before morning tea we asked participants to join us on Video Facilitator, and this tool was used during the middle of the day so that participants could choose groups and move freely around them during our world café and show and play sessions.
When participants joined us on Video Facilitator, the first thing that they saw was an instruction slide showing them how to navigate the tool given the settings we had programmed.
Before the Forum we tested this tool with 25 people from governments and the private sector organisations across Australia and New Zealand. Only one person from the 25 was unable to access the video but could hear audio. Being aware of this potential issue meant that we could set up a Plan B and C to manage it in real-time. It was also the reason that we asked participants to join us on this tool before morning tea, so that we could use this time if necessary, to address the issue before the next session.
Access to Video Facilitator was an issue for nine out of 87 participants during the Forum. Plan B was activated, and my team streamed footage from one of the Video Facilitator rooms into Zoom. This adjustment took 30minutes, a little longer than we expected but worked okay. Participants were able to ask my team managing this process to join specific groups and could ask him to post questions through the chat. Unfortunately, this meant that they could only participate in one group/breakout room at a time, as a group, rather than select the groups that interested them personally. These participants also missed out on one 20minute round of the world café session.
During the Forum participants were also invited to share their reflections on our Mural, which we used as a digital sticky note wall. We shared this in the chat and on the microsite, and participants seemed to have no trouble accessing it. We selected this tool because participants did not need to log in; however, some participants who had logged in previous were sent to the login page because it was cached on their computer.
Our breakout facilitators also used Google Slides to record input shared during the world café. Participants were able to view and add to these slides at any time throughout the day. The slides were also shared as a slideshow during the lunchbreak as a form of reporting back from breakouts.
After the Forum we invited participants to join us on YoTribe for a play. We like this tool, but after testing, it knew that some participants would have issues. Five of the twenty-five people that we tested it with before the event could not use their video with YoTribe. We also knew that some people would need quite a bit of instruction to use it or get frustrated if they were not able to ‘button pushers’ keen to learn by doing and playing.
A full day virtual forum is a lot of screen time for most people, so we were aware that some participants would prefer to go offline to make dinner or spend the evening elsewhere. We also had people joining us from New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of the eastern parts of Australia and that 4 pm was 6 pm there. So, we saved this tool for the end of the day, after the Forum, and let people know that they might have issues joining us there. We also kept this session completely informal so that participants who could not access the tool did not miss out on anything planned. Around fifteen people joined us on YoTribe for a play, debrief and social chat.
Lesson 6 – No technology will work for every organisation, user or type of users/stakeholders and community members. Which means the accessibility and inclusiveness of your virtual engagement will almost always be affected. Provide other options, proactively communicate this risk and how you will manage potential issues. Have a Plan B and C and a team on standby to activate it. Make sure that the event continues and is unaffected for those able to participate but let them know how others are being affected and involved.
Lesson 7 – Rehearse and test every detail, even Plan B and C with all user types and with small groups and large ones. You will need at least two rehearsals. Rehearing a full-day event will take at least a half-day each time.
Lesson 8 – Design, planning and preparing a full day event for 80 plus people takes a lot of time. Running through a full-day event takes at half a day per rehearsal after you have designed the process, selected tools and configured setting in tools to meet your needs.
Lesson 9 – Transitions are hard. Instructions need to be provided in detail, verbally and visually. Allow time for them. If the person facilitating or hosting the event is not the designer of the event, then they need to be across every detail, including risk and issues management plans. They will need to be involved in at least one rehearsal, probably two including one at twenty-four hours before the event.
Lesson 10 – Participants will disengage and turn off their videos no matter how hard you try. We are all busy, under different kinds of pressure and it is a lot to expect everyone’s full attention for a whole day, especially when they are sitting at a computer with other work to do. It can also be uncomfortable seeing yourself on camera all day and having the video on limits a participants ability to move around to meet their other needs. Do not take it personally.
Lesson 11 – Encourage various types of participation. Use breakouts to encourage small group engagement. Ask and invite questions as often as possible. Remind participants who are speaking to turn on their video, and this is probably as much as you can ask.
Lesson 12 – Experiment and share your learnings openly. Most people understand that we are all learning and want to learn with and from you. Showing participants how you adapt and manage issues gives them permission to be imperfect too and also gives them insights that can benefit them.
Initially, we thought we had made a mistake using Video Facilitator. We feel differently after reading the comments in the feedback forms and having follow up discussions with our sponsors and participants (including some who were unable to access it). An overwhelming majority of participants told us they loved learning about and enjoyed using the tool and appreciated the introduction to a range of products. Sponsors also said that they would prefer participants to be able to come and go during their Show and Play sessions rather than be allocated and stuck in breakout rooms they did not choose. Having the use of this tool also allowed participants to choose their own adventure and tune in and out of sessions that interested them.
Finally, I would like to thank the participants of the 2020 ANZ EngageTech Forum for their participation and for making the Forum a safe space for us to learn and share with them. We hope that you enjoyed learning by doing and that you found ideas, lessons, people and resources to support you as you build your digital engagement capabilities.
This post was co-authored by the founder of Engage2 and producer of the EngageTech Forum Amelia Loye, and Engage2’s favourite SpaceMan Dane Murray. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.