When I used to run workshops in person, there were countless micro-moments that allowed people to settle in before the workshop began. As people arrived they’d make a tea and chat together. I’d speak to as many people as I could individually, shake their hand and get their name.
There would be a gentle buzz as people settled in. So much of the feeling of safety was created before any of the content even started, but so often on Zoom we rush straight into delivery, forgetting no-one has had that gentle arrival.
Equally during the face to face workshops, there were opportunities to connect through laughter, little asides, quick feedback and glances. All of this allowed people to feel connected to each other and build rapport. Yet online, muted, and in little boxes many of those connections are lost.
We have to help people to feel safe and connected when they come to our virtual events.
Below is a by no means exhaustive list of suggestions from my own experience of running and attending online workshops, group coaching and ceremonies during 2020.
Welcome everyone by name, especially if they’re new to the group.
(At Writers’ Hour they say ‘let us know in the chat if this is your first time’ — which allows both the facilitator and other members to welcome them).
2. How is everyone? A check-in
A check-in allows everyone to say how they are and what’s here as they’re arriving.
Allow time to ‘clear’ anything that people need to get off their chest that might have happened earlier in the day that will affect the meeting if it’s not shared (eg. I once had someone share that their oven had just blown up 3 minutes before the call and she was quite shaken.)
A more structure check-in could be:
- everyone unmutes one by one and shares name/where they are/one word to share how they are feeling about the workshop
- everyone shares location/one word in the chat
- everyone shares one hope and one fear for the workshop
Allow time to transition from whatever has happened before — either in the way of a soft landing (‘you can arrive from 10 minutes before and have a virtual tea together’) or a dedicated time to land together at the start eg. through a short meditation, reading a poem, listening to a song, or minute’s silence.
Be clear whether the start time is the time when you will start the workshop, or the time when the room opens (but the workshop will start 5 minutes later…)
Will you accept latecomers?
Make sure everyone knows how to use the platform so that tech doesn’t get in the way of people being able to participate — this could be training in advance offered, or a tech support on standby on the day.
Even though it may be inconceivable to have to explain how to use the chat box, or breakout rooms after an 8 month Zoomathon, it’s always worth checking everyone’s au fait with the tech. A quick ‘give me a wave if you’ve used Zoom before’ to gauge at the start can help.
5. Physical comfort
Explain in advance how participants are allowed to interact during the session so that they feel physically comfortable eg.
Will there be a break?
Can they go to the toilet at any time?
Can they walk around the space?
Can they eat food during the meeting?
There could be suggestions of how to set up the space eg. make a tea, get a blanket, grab a journal, light a candle, make sure you have space to move.
6a. Expectations for interaction — speaking
Is this a workshop where people can passively absorb/listen? Or do they need to be actively engaged throughout?
Do they have to respond when called upon? Or is it always an invitation?
If you’re asking everyone to share one by one, how long do they have? And how will you let them know when time is up? Eg. Raise hand, sound a bell, write in chat ‘30 seconds left.’ Remember some people will be in flow or not looking at the camera — it can be embarrassing if they’ve realised they’ve overrun. It’s nice to let people finish their sentence once the time is up so it doesn’t feel too abrupt.
Can people respond to prompts verbally and through the chat?
Do people have to go to a breakout room or can they opt out?
6b. Expectations for interaction — cameras
Do cameras have to be on?
Do participants have to be in shot?
(I have a course where we have to have cameras on but not always be in shot.)
It’s really important to decide what works for you as a facilitator too. If you want people to have cameras on throughout, then ask for that.
Let people know how you will be working, and if it feels right, explain why that way of working is important for the session.
eg. ‘Because we’re going to be sharing vulnerably, it’s important for everyone to keep their cameras on and see who is here.’
‘There will be key sections when we’d like everyone to have cameras on and be present. Once we start the main individual work, it’s up to you whether your camera stays on.’
Some online behaviour may appear rude, but may be cultural. I’ve worked with some companies when it’s company policy that cameras are optional. Other companies will have the policy to have them on. You can find these things out in advance and either decide you’re happy with it, or negotiate a different way of working for your session. If it’s different from their norm, I’ve found it helps to ask the CEO or team leader to set that expectation in advance to help with team buy-in.
Again, giving people warning is key.
Encourage people to find a place in their house where they can speak freely, but be aware that this won’t be possible for everyone. For example if you call on someone to speak about something very personal and their partner/housemate is in the room, you may need to adjust how they respond eg. via chat. Find a way for people to tell you, safely, if they can’t speak freely in that moment.
If possible ask people to use headphones so that others in the house can’t hear the contributions of other members of the Zoom call.
Tell people if it’s going to be recorded and if so where the recording will be going (eg. is it just internal?)
Can people opt out of it being recorded?
8. Confidentiality and consent in sharing
Have guidelines in place for sharing what’s been said in the space eg.
You can talk about your own experiences but not others’.
Only share what you feel comfortable sharing.
Do not share anything about the call outside of the call.
Decide on this as a group and get thumbs up/agreement from everyone. Depending on the nature of the call this may or may not be necessary.
9. Contracting/ ‘How we’ll work together today’
Have time at the start to share ground rules for creating a safe space. This is a good opportunity to express and agree on everything I’ve mentioned in this article, and to understand what else is important. These can be pre-prepared by you as the facilitator or co-created with the group.
Give everyone a chance to ask any questions about the contract and to input on anything else they need to feel safe.
If it’s a group you’ll be meeting multiple times or for a long time, it’s worth spending some time on this. If it’s under 3 hours, I usually offer 3 ground rules and get everyone to show me a thumbs up if they’re happy to work by them.
The 3 rules I share for my workshops are:
- Share from your own experience (eg. don’t talk about what others have said in a breakout room)
- Be aware of the range of experiences on the call — don’t make assumptions about what people may have gone through.
- Ask questions but don’t give advice
Even if you’ve run the workshop 1000 times it’s worth starting every session with a reminder of the ways of working, especially if there are new people who haven’t worked with you before.
10. Tech crises
What happens if people get locked out? Is there someone on standby? Do they know how to get back in?
11. Creating a sense of belonging/togetherness:
Even though you’re not in the same room there are ways you can still create a sense of togetherness.
- Thumbs up/emojis
- Wiggle fingers to agree with what’s being said, or hand on heart to show compassion
- Using a talking piece when people want to speak, which they hold up
- White board to create joint drawings (we once had to draw a communal dragon!)
- Jam board to share post-its and ideas
- Dance/move together eg. copying dance moves or simply all moving together to the same song
- Unmute to clap or to say goodbye at the end
- Listen to music together
12. And finally - THE END.
Remember in real life events when after the workshop/event has finished you have time to mingle and chat? That is needed online too.
See if you can finish your event on time but tell people at the start there will be a ‘soft exit’ — a 10–15 minute window of extra time that allows a calm finish, after the official finish. A soft exit means you honour the finish time for people who have to go (a late finish can be stressful on Zoom!) but also gives people the chance to finish conversations, ask you questions and connect with each other. If you really need to go, consider leaving the room open and making someone else a co-host, or suggesting they open a new room to continue the conversation.
After reading this ask yourself — which of these am I already doing? What is one thing I can try out? And if you have any winning suggestions I haven’t mentioned please share in the comments!