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Logistics for Virtual events remind me of Escher
December 14, 2020   |  Articles

Virtualizing Events: Logistics Part 2

After I posted last week’s article, Kimberly Wiefling (yes, the same awesome Kimberly who suggests that we be replaced with videos whenever possible) added a comment that provides excellent cliff notes for this week’s installment! While last week focused on adapting content at a “micro” level (how to adjust sessions planned for only a few hours at a time), this week is going to dive deeper into the question of how to approach multi-day events in a virtual setting. The thought of several straight days with 8+ hours on a single video call is enough to make even me shiver so this article will offer some alternatives. I’ll also be digging a bit deeper into some of the nuances around staffing and supporting a virtual event, including a look into the fascinating linguistic challenges posed by the Zoom concept of “Host”. With all of that in mind, let’s dive in!

Returning to the “add 25%” guideline from last week applied to partial-day sessions, can the same formula be applied to full day or multi-day events? As so often happens, the answer is “yes AND”. “Yes” – the same guidelines around interactivity should be followed and the same time extension ratio can be applied. “AND” – there are additional nuances that should be considered for longer experiences. For example, I would avoid trying to directly replicate an in-person intensive by simply adding more days back-to-back. Instead, longer sessions are best approached by replacing the original day (or days) with a series of shorter sessions spread across a longer overall timeline.

Starting with a single day event, to transition an 8 hour in-person program to a virtual experience, I would recommend scheduling two, 5 hour sessions on different days. These days may be sequential or spaced apart depending on the content. For longer in-person programs, however, beyond replacing each individual day with the two-day, shorter session approach, I also encourage organizers to space out the delivery of each “day’s” content. Two weeks seems to be evolving into an industry standard for the spacing interval and has many benefits. Skipping a week between sessions can allow for routine tasks to be scheduled around the time commitment, minimizing the disruption while offering an opportunity to put any lessons learned into practice. A two week cadence also keeps the sessions close enough together to prevent all lessons from fading between sessions. To remember this cadence, think of it as 1-2-2: replace 1 day with 2 sessions and space those sessions 2 weeks apart for multiple days.

I recently supported a highly interactive workshop led by the fabulous Kimberly that was the first ever virtual version of a 3-day program she has been delivering for ~8 years. We used the 1-2-2 approach to create 6 different 4-hour sessions and the results were amazing. One need only read Kimberly’s comment from last week to get a feel for the level of excitement this experience created in all of us! Personally, when we asked attendees in the very first session to report back to us with something they had implemented 20 hours later during the 2nd meeting, I was skeptical that there would be anything to share. Much to my surprise, however, attendees both took the time to put concepts into practice in the 20-hour gap and were filled with such enthusiasm to report back their results that any residual shyness we had seen during the first session was quickly vanquished.

Being a naturally skeptical person, I then transferred my doubts to the longer breaks between sessions. Surely our attendees would put us out of their minds when they had weeks rather than hours before our next session. Once again, I was happily proven wrong as our attendees’ desire to implement and report only appeared to magnify during the longer break. This drive and ability to test and report mid-training was perhaps the single biggest value-add in the transition from in-person to virtual. Given that attendees were spread across several continents and the virtual event saved thousands of dollars on travel costs, I hardly make this claim lightly!

But you may have noticed that I said we transitioned a 3 day session (24 hours of content) into 6 half-day sessions (24 hours of content). We overlooked the 25% conversion factor. The in-person workshop had always been highly interactive and included appropriate breaks but all of those deep dives into the experiments our attendees tried and their lessons learned between sessions required (and deserved!) time and energy. When attendees were sequestered for 3 days away from their teams for the in-person version of the training, immediate application of leadership principles with their teams was impossible. That made these invaluable debriefing discussions an entirely new agenda item. In the end, we decided to add an extra session to the program because there was too much enthusiasm not to sign up for another several hours on Zoom!

Having sung the praises of the time I spent in this workshop, the question may remain: how was so much time reserved in the first place? Although many of us have recaptured hours from our commutes, our calendars often look busier than ever before! Reserving this time for all attendees was no small feat and required both months of planning and an explicit commitment to reserve and protect the necessary time. However, such planning would have been equally necessary for the in person training with flights to reserve and venues to book. The primary difference this year was the effort required to protect that time once it had been blocked, a process we accomplished by having attendees and their managers all sign a commitment pledge. Although technically there was nothing enforceable about the document, the effort of reading and signing a written commitment solidified the importance of this time and helped preserve the space for these wonderful sessions.

You may also have noticed that I continue to say “we” as I recount this story. By now, it should be clear that Kimberly was leading the charge for this experience but she was being supported by myself and two more co-facilitators! Continuing my theme of “Belle was skeptical but then…”, having 4 external facilitators initially struck me as being overly admin-heavy but turned out to be just the right number. Broadly, having one person to lead the content, one person to be managing Zoom logistics (breakout room, chat moderation, etc), and one person supporting on the backend (tracking the as-delivered items, adapting agendas in real time, taking screenshots, etc) distributed the work effectively. Having a fourth person meant that we had redundancy in case of an emergency that prevented any one person from attending and allowed dynamic task sharing when any particular role was spiking.

This raises the question of whether 4 people happened to be the right number for us or whether one can generalize from our experiences. Looking at the roles above, there are two crucial roles that should always be filled: Lead Facilitator (or presenter) and Zoom Admin. To take full advantage of the chat and breakout rooms, ensure people are muted promptly when background noises sneak in, and that the Zoom logistics otherwise run smoothly over the course of several hours is a significant task. Trying to balance that work with leading content will reduce, often dramatically, the overall effectiveness of the primary instructor.

When scheduling sessions over a multi-week time horizon, the potential for illnesses or other unforeseen crises suggests that having a 3rd person involved for redundancy is wise. For longer sessions, having multiple presenters or facilitators (as we had for the training discussed above) can help ensure high energy at all times. Therefore, replacing a session that would have taken 1 day or less in person requires a minimum of 2 people supporting the virtual iteration and sessions that would have taken 2 days or longer in person require a minimum of 3 people staffing the virtual version. Summarized, we can simply say “1 → ≥2, 2+ → ≥3”.

Rounding out the discussion of facilitation support, I would like to end with a reflection on terminology. You may have noticed that I included “managing breakout rooms” as part of the Zoom Admin responsibilities and suggested that the Zoom Admin should be a different person than the lead presenter or facilitator. Up until version 5.4.6 (released less than one week before this article’s publication), Zoom permitted only the “Host” to create breakout rooms. As a result, the “Host” and the “person taking center stage” were often different people in a smoothly organized event. This was very difficult for some facilitators and presenters to accept as they wanted the “Host” role to match their “Lead presenter/facilitator” status. There are still some tasks only the Host can complete but as long as all Hosts and Co-Hosts have updated to the latest version of Zoom, one of the largest historic barriers to distributing roles in the most effective manner can now be accommodated rather than fought. If you are using Zoom, I highly recommend updating today!

Transitioning so much of our lives into the virtual world remains an ongoing challenge and we will continue to learn and refine techniques in the coming months and years. However, 9 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had plenty of time to establish a baseline of wisdom that can serve us well. We are far past the time to bemoan the experiences we cannot have. Now is the time to use 2020 to answer the question, “how can my events be enhanced by the virtual setting”. Increased interactivity and break discipline will go a long way but effective adaptation will require 25% more time to adapt the same materials for the new setting. For events longer than a few hours, using the 1-2-2 rule will keep attendees engaged and maximize the value of the sessions. Following the “1 → ≥2, 2+ → ≥3” guideline will ensure sufficient support and ensuring that everyone has the latest version of the service being used can avoid tricky vocabulary hangups. With the right logistics, powerful virtual events go from possible to probable. Are you planning for success?

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