Karen Morton

Jun 9, 2021, 9:00 AM

Virtual away days – making best use of digital tech in the hybrid workplace

“Just because someone is important, it doesn’t mean they know how to work stuff. Be sensitive to other people’s technological capabilities and keep it simple.”

I work as a facilitator (amongst other things). When we were first locked down, away days were postponed and instead I got busy with the Covid response in my local community.  This was a great way to explore Zoom – endless meetings – and devise training for people who probably would have heard me if I had shouted out of the window.

The work came creeping back and I learnt to run away days, training and workshops whilst sitting at my desk and looking at my screen. Virtual meetings are here to stay – and how brilliant to be able to network across the world! The most recent event I chaired had participants from Singapore and Canada.

I have used Skype, Teams and other platforms but, as a virtual facilitator, I really like Zoom.  At first I tried to find ways to replicate real life away days but the experience was very much the same as when I first tried a gluten-free Jammie Dodger: it might have the same name but it’s very different. 

This is one of the many lessons I have learnt and so, for charities keen to embrace digital technology, and specifically virtual meetings, I’d like to pass on a few tips.

1.      Mind the capacity gap

  • Tech goes wrong. Phone out of battery, child on other computer, headphones plugged in/not plugged in… It’s a complete mystery to the 30 people in the meeting why Mr A can’t hear anything but they still have plenty of advice. All at once.
  • It’s fun to put on a moustache using a Zoom filter – but not so great for the people struggling to find the right button when their device doesn’t actually have it. 
  • Just because someone is important, it doesn’t mean they know how to work stuff. Many of us get flustered by technology, however cool in other situations. Expecting the Honorary Chair to competently use a whiteboard in a breakout room can be very undermining when they don’t know how.

So be sensitive to other people’s technological capabilities and keep it simple. If a team already uses Miro or another shared planning tool, fine. If not, stick to Zoom.

2.       Engagement

  • Zoom fatigue has become a very real condition for many of us. Apparently it is linked with the self-view function – the unfamiliar experience of watching yourself. You can switch it off – but only do so if you are absolutely confident you have no absent-minded behaviours that you would rather 50 people didn’t see.
  • Don’t assume that participants staring at the screen are actually listening. Standing at the front of a room, you can generally spot if someone (or everyone) is disengaged. On Zoom it’s much harder. They might be watching Netflix.

So introduce activities to check everybody is with you. Carry out a poll, move to breakout rooms, ask for comments in chat. Keep it interactive.

3.     Location

  • We will probably be seeing many more ‘hybrid’ (ie mix of digital and face-to-face) meetings and events, which will bring new challenges.

On one virtual away day I wrongly assumed participants were working from home.  Actually, several had gone into the office and were in the same room, which made the audio sound like we were in an aquarium. Remember too that if people are using the same device, you can’t send them to separate breakout rooms.

4.     Breakout rooms

  • I love being able to whizz people into groups and back to plenary in a millisecond! It beats having to chivvy people along and wait for those who detoured to the loo. But it’s pretty stressful trying to engineer a good mix in breakout rooms with a screen full of people staring at you. There are fixes, but I haven’t yet found one better than setting a thinking task while you move people around.
  • Being alone when everyone has disappeared into breakouts is very much like drifting around the main hall clearing up sweet wrappers, redirecting the person who forgot where they were supposed to go. But remember, when you are in that precious space on Zoom, the record button might be on, so watch what you say!

5.     Timing

  • Because Zoom calls are tiring, and because things often go wrong, timings need to be different. I’ve been running much shorter sessions, which is a challenge when attempting to cover a lot of ground but necessary for maintaining engagement.
  • However, as a matter of etiquette, I rarely press ‘End Meeting’ before everyone else has left. It is too abrupt. I finish on time but find it useful to allow a bit of post-event chat.  

6.      Chat

  • As a facilitator I wouldn’t ignore a group having a side conversation. Chat can be similar – and similarly distracting. However, used carefully and deliberately (ie dropping in useful nuggets of breakout feedback, for Q&A), Chat can be a great tool.  Get someone else to monitor it, though. It’s very hard to facilitate, read and digest at the same time.  

Face-to-face meetings are happening again and away day venues will be keen to welcome us all back in numbers. Am I looking forward to being back in all those interesting locations? Yes, of course. I miss the toffees. But no longer will I assume that we have to gather in person. Zoom is a substantial addition to the facilitator toolkit. Use it well.

For help facilitating an away day, in person or virtual, please email info@actionplanning.co.uk

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Andrew Johnson

Karen Morton has designed and led dozens of participatory events, from small focus groups to whole organisation away days, creatively encouraging better collaboration and understanding and enabling new ways of thinking.

She is also an experienced chair, from large conferences to small but tricky meetings, and has provided training on subjects ranging from local leadership to meeting skills.