Bringing researchers together is the core business of the Lorentz Center. In times where people are not able to travel and physically attend meetings, we encourage virtual activities.
If your workshop cannot take place at the Lorentz Center due to COVID-19 measures, we are happy to discuss the possibilities of organizing your workshop online or in a blended/hybrid version.
Tips and tricks for virtual workshops
The information below is intended for organizers of virtual or hybrid Lorentz Center workshops and will be updated regularly. No rights may be derived from the contents below. For questions, suggestions and comments, please contact your workshop coordinator.
update 14 December 2020
- A virtual or blended workshop is not an online version of a physical workshop. Don't prepare a virtual workshop as you would prepare a physical workshop. It is important to embrace the fact that participants will join the workshop virtually and you have to rethink the format for the virtual workshop to be successful.
- Clearly specify the goals and outcomes of your virtual workshop. The Lorentz Center team is available to support you here during start and (re-)intake meetings.
- Distribute tasks between organizers, both in terms of content (who will be leading which session) but also in terms of technical tasks (choosing the tools, managing the chat, explaining the technique of virtually raising hands, keeping an eye on raised hands, etc.). Make sure the organizers are well-equipped for their task.
- Physical workshops are the Lorentz Center's standard format for a reason, but acquiring the skills to work in virtual or blended formats makes you and your field more flexible, less vulnerable to sudden travel limitations and less dependent on funding for travels and catering in the future.
Synchronous and asynchronous content
- Synchronous content: live sessions with participants engaging at the same time.
Asynchronous content: activities that can be done by individual participants at different times.
- Make conscious choices between synchronous and asynchronous content of the workshop. Usually, not everything needs to happen in one go or should be done by all participants at the same time (e.g. reading papers, sharing opinions, voting for topics, even watching pre-recorded presentations can all be done individually and/or on demand). This allows you to build stages and play with time in your workshop.
- By allowing some time to process between synchronous and asynchronous elements, you it may be easier for the more introvert participants to contribute to the workshop in a valuable way.
- Make asynchronous parts of the workshop as easy as possible: take care of virtual tools & techniques, be clear on where information can be found and stored and what is expected from whom by when. This is essential for engagement of participants to the workshop.
- Example of asynchronous workshop content: ask the lecturers of the key talks or tutorials to pre-record themselves. Then send this presentations one or two weeks in advance of the workshop, so the participants have enough time to watch them all. Then each participant can send a number of questions/topics to be discussed during the synchronous part of the workshop.
- Use synchronous sessions when live interaction is required (e.g. for discussions, decision making, networking), thereby optimizing the virtual time to avoid videoconferencing fatigue (see below).
- Don't present asynchronous elements as 'preparation' or 'pre-work' but make it an integral part of the workshop that is just as important as the synchronous live sessions. e.g. by calling it 'phase 1' of the workshop. Consider a short synchronous opening and introduction session to kick-off the workshop, followed by a period of asynchronous content, which will be input for the next synchronous part (which may be days or weeks later), etc.
Duration and time management
- Be aware of videoconferencing fatigue: seeing human faces up close for several hours a day causes severe mental fatigue. Limit such sessions to a maximum of 2 hours per day.
- Take breaks during and/or between virtual activities to keep the participants' eyes from the screen for some time, go to the toilet, stretch the legs, get a drink, etc.
- In virtual workshops, we tend to provide all of the information at once. But as in physical workshops, breaking things down into manageable parts is also a good idea in virtual workshops. Make use of limited-scope questions and multiple-choice polls to ensure rapid responses.
- Spread out the contents of the workshop over multiple days or weeks. People learn better when given the time to process. Plan time in between asynchronous elements and live sessions to enable participants to think about the contents and prepare for their response or live discussion session.
- People joining digitally don't lose time on traveling, so you can ask them to put more time in preparation than you would for a physical workshop.
- Strictly stick with the time you planned for the virtual activities.
Inclusion of participants
- In a virtual workshop, you can more easily include people who would otherwise be unable to join, as traveling and the associated costs are not a prerequisite for all participants anymore. This opens up possibilities, e.g. for colleagues with young families and marginalized groups. Also, people previously unavailable for the scheduled week may be invited to join in and contribute digitally. However, keep in mind that an increasing number of participants may affect the quality of discussions and group work.
- Transparent collaboration: make sure that all participants have an equal voice in the virtual or blended workshop. As in a physical workshop, give introvert and/or young people the time and opportunity to respond as much as more extrovert or more experienced participants. To accommodate this, you are encouraged to play with synchronous and asynchronous content (see above) and with elements such as breakout sessions.
Rules of engagement
- Send around the final program and login details to all participants at least a day in advance.
- Before the online activity, send around some rules for engagement so participants know what technical and personal behavior is expected from them.
- Make clear upfront what platform(s) you will be using and encourage participants to explore the technology and optimize their audio and video settings beforehand.
- When using videoconferencing platforms, consider enabling participants to change their screen name (or ask this upfront, depending on the platform) to make sure everyone present can be identified with a first and last name and no obscure nicknames are displayed.
- Explicitly spend some words on confidentiality and privacy, making screenshots and recordings, sharing files, etc.
- Put up a welcome screen when people start arriving in the virtual meeting. The screen could for example show the program and some rules of engagement (pictograms can be considered here).
- In case of a multi-day event, explain the structure of the whole event on the first day, and end the first day with an outlook to the next day.
Commitment, responsibilty, engagement an activation
- Make sure that every participant has a responsibility that is clearly defined upfront to make the virtual or blended workshop work.
- To help build your community, consider using a dedicated and exclusive communication platform upfront, e.g. a Slack channel, e-mail list, online forum, etc.
- Consider to create couples. For blended workshops: 1 person physically joining the workshop + 1 person (for example from the same field) virtually joining. Consciously choose how couples are made in terms of research field, seniority, geographic location, etc. Of course, randomly creating couples is also an option. Members of a couple will be each other's buddy throughout the workshop. They are expected to prepare and align together before and during the workshop, and they can be held accountable for each other's (virtual) presence and active participation.
- Activate by asking questions by name. When leading virtual workshops, make sure you know who is online, so you can address questions directly to each participant. This simple sign of consideration is know to significantly strengthen participation.
Introduction and icebreakers
- Plan an introduction on behalf of the organizing team, in which you explain the goals and the format of the workshop and walk the participants through the program. A short introduction from the Lorentz Center may be part of this as well (to be discussed with your workshop coordinator).
- Ask all participants to fill a slide to introduce themselves and their research. As a host, provide a uniform slide format and collect all slides upfront, so you can share your screen and you don't have the hassle of everyone having to share their screen for just one slide. Tip: put the name of the next participant up for introduction in the top-left corner, so this person can check his or her technique and prepare mentally. This works wonders for the flow of the session.
- Set a maximum time for each participant introduction and communicate this clearly upfront (e.g. 1-3 minutes). Calculate how much time the round will cost, and keep the time during the session.
- Consider organizing check-in sessions. How are people today? What do they expect from the workshop (session). Depending on the group size, check-in sessions can be done plenary or in random breakout groups, with reporting back (on one of the other participants). In plenary sessions, instead of having all virtual participants answer this question in sequence (which can take up too much time if you have many participants), you can use a format in which participants can simultaneously share their thoughts in a real-time collaboration environment (e.g. a chat, Slack channel, Mentimeter poll, Google document, etc) and for example have an AI tool create a word cloud to summarize the check-in.
- Speed dates between individual participants can be planned as well, optionally followed by a reporting back session on each other's speed date partner (plenary or in small groups, all dependent on group size). Speed dates are really a very nice way to become active and speak to people you otherwise would not have met, but 3 minutes is too short. Combining speed dates with a specific question or "goal" can be very useful.
- In physical workshops, a well-known icebreaker is to show a picture of the journey that got you in the venue. An online alternative would be to show a picture of your current environment (e.g. outside surroundings or the house/room you are in).
- If you have agreed that people from outside the community (e.g. Lorentz Center employees) join the session, make sure to introduce them to the other participants as well and let them explain the purpose and duration of their presence. Being consequently transparent is essential for building trust in your workshop.
- Presentations can be prepared to introduce a person, topic or session, as a tutorial or lecture to get the participants on the same page scientifically, to share the latest insights, to share results from discussions sessions, etc.
- As in physical workshops, be highly selective in having presentations in your program. Each and every presentation should serve a clear purpose and should be interesting to all participants. Active participation of participants does not automatically translate to each participant giving a (virtual) talk.
- Limit the time for virtual presentations when doing them live (synchronous) to about 15-20 minutes, preferably even less if they are part of a session with multiple presentations. Consider breaking up longer presentations with interactive polls or other intermezzo's. Apparently some research has shown that the attention span for passive online lectures is around 6-7 minutes.
- Make sure the technique works flawless for live (synchronous) virtual presentations. Have all speakers test their video, audio and screen sharing with you as organizers upfront.
- Key lectures and presentations can be pre-recorded and included in the workshop as asynchronous content, to be discussed in a later synchronous session (see above).
- Discussions don't need to be limited by spoken sessions only. They can be carried out on or effectively supported by a virtual platform, where everyone can comment, ask questions and give a thumbs-up. It is important that the participants feel committed to the content that has been created. The more the participants use these digital tools during the workshop, the more likely they are to continue using it afterwards.
- Appoint a moderator to manage every discussion, even including the short discussions after a talk.
- Be clear about how participants can ask questions and give contributions. For example, let the moderator explain that questions can be typed in the chat box, or that the 'raise hand' function can be used and people will be unmuted by the moderator when it's their turn.
- Consider breakout discussions after a lecture: participants in smaller breakout groups discuss the lecture with each other, ask questions and the speaker hops around in the different rooms. Or the groups prepare questions while the speaker takes a break. Or in a session of several short presentations each speaker is assigned a break-out room for discussions and questions that could be shared for instance on Padlet.com. After a bio+reading break a plenary discussion can take place.
- Mention the time available, stick with the time and end the discussion as planned.
- Be explicit in what will be done with remaining or further questions that cannot be answered in time. Especially since people in virtual meetings usually don't get to have a cup of coffee with the speakers afterwards. For example: further questions will be taken along to another general discussion session, answered by the speaker later on, etc.
- Clearly explain the purpose and the proposed format of the discussion at the start of the activity.
- Consider a test round of virtual hand raising / voting / polling to make sure all participants are equally equipped for the session and you are not bothered by technical questions in the middle of a discussion.
- Mention the time available for the discussion and stick to it.
- Share a screen with a virtual whiteboard and have one person make notes that everyone can view.
- Poster sessions can be very creative sessions with a lot of discussion.
- Posters can be uploaded to be viewed during the whole workshop.
- Plan a poster session (early in the week) where every poster is presented in a break-out room at a certain moment.
- Start with plenary flash presentations of the posters (these could also be (pre)recorded). When this session has been a success, other participants may be inspired to create impromptu posters that can be uploaded during the workshop and discussed in an "improvised" session later in the week.
- Make sure topics for breakout groups are defined upfront, either by the organizers in the workshop program, or by the participants before or during the workshop through virtual polls or questionnaires. In the latter case, be transparent on how choices were made.
- Explain how breakout groups are formed: randomly, by interest of participants, by predefined name lists, etc.
- You can have breakout groups in different time zones, all depending on the number, origin and background of people joining digitally.
- For time-limited breakout groups in synchronous activities, it is nice to get a warning a little while before it stops.
- Consider a speed dating session, followed by a brainstorm session.
- In blended workshops, virtual participants can form a separate breakout group together. They all have the same 'limitations' which equalizes them. They can set up a conference call, chat box and working space together, and present or otherwise share their findings in a plenary reporting back session.
- These may need some help to get going, and may need a bit of extra planning, especially in the beginning of a workshop. Think of inviting participants explicitly to come to the coffee room. Participants still also need their physical breaks away from the screen.
- Lunch or have coffee in breakout groups, and have each group select an image that best describes their mood. Afterwards, view the images together. This stream of images is a visual addition to all the creativity and cooperation that is experienced at the workshop.
- Especially in multi-day workshops, consider organizing some light and social activities with the whole group, e.g. music breaks, pubquiz, 'three of anything', etc.
- Organize a virtual dinner where people will order food from the same (type of) restaurant (e.g. eating pizza "together").
- Take a virtual museum tour together, watch a movie or engage in other kinds of "conversation pieces" that can be shared and possibly enrich the workshop thematically.
- Consider asking a range of people (senior colleagues, graduate students, postdocs, etc.) to host their own virtual “tables” during the coffee break, lunch break, and reception. Distribute links to these rooms, e.g. in an online document. As rooms get more crowded, other participants can create new tables on the fly. Be aware that especially junior participants may find it intimidating to join the rooms, so pay attention to encouraging an open and safe atmosphere throughout the workshop.
- Participants joining virtually can look up and work out things while the workshop is running, as a back-office with full resources. Virtual participants can work together and make a valuable and active contribution to the workshop. Also, time zone differences can be overcome; people working in another time zone may be able to pick up input from the day and take it a step further in the evening. Overlapping reporting back sessions can be organized to feed the workshop further (there can be all kinds of variations on this).
- Organizers can organize polls during the workshop to decide on topics, to vote for next steps or for the order in which things are done.
- Some polling tools have AI-options build-in (e.g. Mentimeter) which may greatly help you in prioritizing and categorizing topics, gauging sentiment, etc.
- Create a plan for what will happen directly after the virtual workshop and connect this to any longer-term outcomes. Examples for actions directly after the virtual workshop: evaluation questions, signing up for a working group or digital workspace, working on a shared document, etc. Examples of longer-term outcomes: monthly virtual tutorials, writing a white paper or grant proposal, etc.
- Consider creating a summary of the workshop, or an online FAQ with all the questions and answers from the chat box during the workshop.
- There will also be an evaluation by the Lorentz Center, involving a questionnaire for both organizers and participants and a short scientific report to be written by organizers. Your workshop coordinator will contact you about this.