Two weeks of panic attacks. 

That was my first experience of running a Zoom workshop, right at the start of Covid. 

I had a client that wanted to shift their Changeology training online, so I gamely said ‘yes, I’ll do it!’ But, really, I had no idea. 

The client had no idea either. So they set up two 1-hour dress rehearsals, one with 18 people and one with 8 people, so we could all figure this out together. I stuffed up the rehearsals: I left the workshop twice and closed it once. But everyone waited patiently for me to rejoin, which was nice. The video sound didn’t function and I had no idea how to use the whiteboard. I made all the mistakes in those rehearsals. As a result the final event went smoothly and participants gave lovely feedback.

I thought Zooming would be a crapulous degraded version of real life workshopping, drained of humanity, connection and spontaneity. I was wrong.

I really love this space now. 

The trick was to do a LOT of experimenting and just remember we are all human beings here. I put myself in the shoes of the participants and tried a pile of ideas to make it a relaxing, enjoyable experience for all (see tips below).

Now I run a Zoom workshop practically every day. I have a cup of coffee, a walk, and wander upstairs to my “video lab”. I’m not getting tired of it. I miss the extra fun and ‘presence’ of face-to-face workshops, but I feel I could do this forever.

I really got the power of this medium in a workshop with change leaders from Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Dunedin, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, and a tiny spot in the middle of Queensland. There we were, all together on one little screen, chatting happily like we were sitting right next to each other. The tyranny of distance was vanquished. One guy in Samoa, literally sitting under a palm tree, said he couldn’t believe that his Pacific Islands team hadn’t been doing this the whole time, instead of flying from island to island to go to meetings. 

The real glory of Zoom is its breakout rooms. It’s always in small breakouts of 4-5 people that the real participation happens. Zoom’s breakout rooms work exactly like real life table groups. People always come back from the breakout rooms looking happier and lighter. Technically, Zoom does breakout rooms beautifully, with a simple interface that lets me rapidly throw people in and out of breakouts, in any combination, random or assigned. By comparison, Microsoft Team’s breakout rooms feature (called ‘channels’) is hopelessly clunky. Webex also does breakout rooms, but there’s no video there (go figure!).

The two main interactive tools are Chat and Whiteboard. They both work sweetly and are fun for novices to use. Special note: I always give people 5 minutes of whiteboard play time before doing serious stuff – it’s how they learn to use it. And Chat’s a better-than-real-life tool because it’s legible and instantly readable by all. Silent Chat-time is a very effective interactive method all by itself. I also try to convince people to use Chat whenever they feel a need to express themselves during the workshop – it’s great for shy participants, and it’s fun having a second stream of random ideas just happening all day…kind of like a teacher-approved version of passing notes in the classroom.

Anyway, I’ve gotten distracted by the technology. I really want to share some important tips to make Zooming work.

TIPS to make ZOOMING work

1) The first is a “chilled-out online orientation”. This sets out the ground rules for participation. The first time I was ever in someone else’s Zoom workshop it was a horrible experience because I didn’t know the social rules. Could I talk? Could I chat? Could I step away for a moment? Could I ask a question? I didn’t know what I was allowed to do and I got stuck in front of a screen I couldn’t escape from. In 15 minutes I was having a rotten time and didn’t want to be there any more. The solution is to give people specific permissions to be human, demonstrate them, AND ask them to practice them right at the start of the workshop.

Here is my “chilled-out online orientation” checklist. 

2) Get a TV (at least 32 inch), connected to your laptop with an ordinary HDMI cable. That way you can STAND UP and MOVE AROUND. This is infinitely more pleasant and comfortable that sitting down for hours. The same goes for the participants.

3) Invite participants to arrive 20 minutes before start time so they chat, get to know each other, do sound checks, and iron out any tech problems. This breaks the ice.

4) Never Zoom in the afternoon. It never works – people always get sleepy. Instead break a whole day workshop into two mornings so they’re always fresh.

Here’s how a big physical “YES” looks. We practice this at the start of a workshop.

5) Do lots of “check-offs” and quick interactive requests during the day, getting people to respond with a big physical “Y” (yes) or “X” (no).

6) Have lots of breaks, at least 10 minutes per hour.

7) The first time you do it, do TWO dress rehearsals.

In conclusion, I want to say: don’t be afraid. This new space is cool. If we’re adventurous, give our participants permission to be human, and use lots of tricks to maintain energy, it really works. It can be a pleasure. Its astonishing power to vanquish distance means people from the most dispersed locations, virtually anywhere on earth, can happily congregate and work together. That’s an extremely good thing.