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Back in March, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a wave of cancellations and postponements. Gatherings, trainings, and other events were put on hold “until the situation resolved”. But as the weeks stretched into months, more and more businesses came to terms with the need to virtualize their conferences, workshops, and events of all varieties. That decision made, a question still remained: how does one transition an in-person experience effectively into the virtual world?
There have been many excellent articles written about virtual leadership and leveraging features of tools like Zoom. My personal favorite is this blog post from the Percipio Company, which offers both general guidelines and specific tips for Zoom and Microsoft Teams. But one aspect that is missing from most of the articles I have read so far is a deeper dive into timing and logistics. How does an in-person hour from a well-established agenda translate into time spent on Zoom? Is there a conversion formula for turning a full day or multi-day event into an effective virtual experience? I believe that there is, although some adjustment will always be required for specific circumstances.
For workshops or events lasting only a few hours in the real world, my experience has been that the key factor driving the ratio between in-person and virtual hours is the degree of interactivity included in the original agenda. To keep people engaged in a virtual setting, interactivity is key. The Inclusive Leadership in a Virtual World series, for which I am on the steering committee, asks presenters (known within the community as facilitators) to speak for no more than 10 minutes between interactive elements. Although that guideline is sometimes impractical, virtual settings are most effective when participants actually participate. Therefore, for sessions designed for the physical world that already include high interactivity, or for those where lectures can be replaced by activities or discussions in the same time frame, a 1:1 conversion is possible.
More commonly, however, the move to a virtual setting requires approximately a 25% increase in time to cover the same materials. This can be counterintuitive and seem like a bad omen as many people still balk at the idea of being on a “call” any longer than is necessary. But a well constructed virtual event ensures that the time passes quickly. Careful planning can also make virtual events more effective than their “real world” counterparts. Even in the physical world, small group conversations and hands-on activities can solidify concepts more deeply than a simple lecture but the logistics of breakouts requiring participants to be chased down at the end of the allotted time can be overwhelming for larger, in-person groups. Similarly, asking a room full of people to share and record their thoughts on a single whiteboard, flip chart, or other physical medium becomes a serial process with a handful of scribes at most. In short, participation in the real world can be slow and awkward.
In the virtual world, tools like Zoom ensure that everyone returns to the “Main Room” from a breakout discussion exactly when they are supposed to. To be honest, that is my single favorite Zoom feature as a facilitator. But there is far more to love about breakout rooms than the delightful reappearance of attendees upon demand. Over the past several months, I have come to appreciate what I think of as the “magic” of breakout rooms. Often, a workshop or training will begin with only a handful of people choosing to turn on their cameras and even fewer speaking up when questions are asked. That all changes during the first breakout room. As the attendees return to the main room, most cameras are on and when we ask for volunteers to recap their breakout room discussions, suddenly most people want a chance to speak up.
While breakout rooms are probably my favorite feature of Zoom (and now Teams, WebEx, and several other platforms), the chat box is another, often-overlooked, source of tremendous value during virtual events. Regardless of what studies say about the benefits or drawbacks of multi-tasking, the reality is that most people are unlikely to simply stare at a specific window on their screen, without distraction, for an extended period of time. The chat box introduces an opportunity for the “distractions” to bolster engagement. In person, we are limited to whispers with only the people directly next to us and often at the cost of dirty looks. Leveraging chat for parallel discussions and input can supplement a speaker and slides. In my own work, I also often use the chat box as a way to summarize the highlights of a discussion when there are no slides being shared or when information is verbalized without being written. This allows people who process written information more effectively than verbal statements to absorb the material more deeply.
Turning to the notion of whiteboards, flip charts, and other traditional forms of documentation for in-person events, the virtual options often far out-shine the traditional. Within Zoom itself, the “Annotate” feature allows dozens of people to write their thoughts, stamp their opinions, or even create visualizations together simultaneously. Expanding beyond the Zoom interface, screen sharing and collaborative editing tools like Google Workspace or Conceptboard can take simultaneous input capabilities to an entirely new, and higher, level. The shared documents, spreadsheets, and presentations available through Google Workspace offer several familiar contexts for real-time collaboration. Conceptboard offers a wide variety of far more specific templates that can enable complex parallel planning with a minimum of fuss. Many virtual platforms also offer straightforward polling options that can take the pulse of a group, anonymously and entertainingly, without piles of additional technology. Yes, incorporating these tools and activities may take more time, but the resulting artifacts and experiences can more than justify the investment.
The final factor to be considered in determining the right ratio for your event is the frequency and duration of breaks. While virtual sessions can be highly interactive and engaging, studies have previously shown that regular breaks are always important. Because virtual sessions allow for easier distractions (attendees are already looking at the same screen as their email), including regular breaks that allow attendees to scratch any remaining distraction itches that persist despite the interactivity, chat, etc, becomes crucial to effective and sustained engagement. There is no need for a rigid schedule of breaks but failing to factor in time for these respites will reduce the effectiveness of the overall program.
I was also careful to specify that the 25% increase in time is the standard requirement to cover “the same materials” planned for an in-person event. Another alternative is simply to revisit agendas with a critical eye. Particularly when time is limited and the 25% margin is unavailable, pure recitations of facts and concepts can be replaced with pre-reading or follow-up materials. Interactive virtual meetings allow for a deeper discussion than might have been practical in person and so a broad agenda might be effectively replaced with a deeper one.
Of course, the other option for these sessions is to prerecord and then allow participants to consume the information at their own pace. When visualizations are required, a variety of platforms makes publishing your recording straightforward – from YouTube, which makes hosting free content incredibly simple, to Vimeo, which allows creators to easily limit access to paying customers. Alternatively, if only the audio is required, the material could even be made available as a podcast to further expand your resource library. As a colleague of mine likes to say, “If you can replace us with a recording – you should!”
Having explored the various mediums and tools available for virtualization, those who choose to proceed with a live virtual event can simply answer the question, “How much time will I need to do this virtually?” with “25% longer”. That time will be used to increase interactivity and to ensure sufficient breaks. If additional time is infeasible, one alternative is to rethink the agenda to go deeper on a few items instead of broadly covering all planned topics. When planned to effectively leverage the powerful tools that virtualization makes available for parallel inputs and conversations, virtual experiences can more effectively engage a larger number of people than an in-person experience. Virtual events may be intimidating to facilitators and instructors new to the virtual world, but I highly recommend simply leaning in to our current reality and seeing what kind of magic you can create!
But wait, there’s more! The second article in this Logistics series will address multi-day events and staffing. Stay tuned!