The Challenges of Converting Virtual Workshops Back to In-Person

Two and a half years ago when we were all told we would be working from home for the foreseeable future, facilitators everywhere were on alert. Workshops were a uniquely physical experience that boasted the benefits of face-to-face collaboration and breaking participants out of their day-to-day routine behind their desk. Suddenly, facilitators were forced to adapt. But now offices are opening back up and workshop principles are being challenged once again; this time converting the virtual experience back to physical.

For me, going virtual wasn’t an issue. I joined a design thinking team and was first exposed to the virtual facilitation world in March 2020. My first task was transforming an introduction to design thinking workshop – previously conducted exclusively in-person – to be conducted in this new virtual world. Over the next year and a half, I experimented with a variety of tools to help create a valuable experience for participants from their desk at home. I became an expert with Miro, a virtual whiteboarding platform, and hosted over 20 workshops virtually and countless team and personal brainstorming exercises. Facilitating and creating frameworks was something that only existed in the virtual world for me.

Let’s get physical

In March 2022, I joined Go Studio, the innovation center of InComm Payments, as an Innovation Analyst; my primary function being their workshop facilitator. In my first 60 days, I redesigned an existing virtual workshop framework and ran it with a few different teams. But then it came time to do an in-person workshop. My first one ever.

I was excited! This was an opportunity I had been looking forward to since I first started facilitating. But when I started thinking about all the details of the in-person experience, my excitement waned. I couldn’t simply take what I was doing in Miro and print it out and expect everything to be the same. I had to re-adjust my creativity and mental approach to a physical world when my brain exclusively learned and understood workshop facilitation in a virtual world.

I looked to external sources for guidance but quickly began realizing this was a challenge. Over the past two years, countless articles around “How to take your workshop virtual” had been authored but when I tried to search the reverse, “How to take your virtual workshop physical,” I struggled to find anything. I realized my experience in this field was unique and required me to question my own methods and create a new kind of experience entirely.

To prepare, I did lots of brainstorming and created many detailed tables and lists. I replicated our innovation center virtually so I could play around with where each activity would be conducted and how I would walk around the room. I took stock of what supplies we had available and how I would need to utilize them effectively for the activities, while also making sure we weren’t going to run out (we ended using over 350 sticky notes!). Two weeks before the session I jumped in my 2020 Mazda6 and drove to Atlanta, jamming to my pump-up music playlist to practice and get comfortable with the Go Studio space.

Arriving at my destination

Spoiler alert. All this extensive planning and practicing made for a great first workshop! On our post-session survey, participants gave positive feedback and expressed that it was a valuable use of their time. We made it through all our activities and achieved our goals for the session.

I inevitably faced challenges I hadn’t prepared for, like when our sticky notes decided they didn’t want to stick and we scrambled to find tape. I also encountered delights I hadn’t expected, like spending a day in person with the participants and feeling like I built better relationships faster than if we were virtual. In addition, I had to mentally grapple with my lower level of comfort with the physical compared to the virtual logistics. I realized I needed to be more cognizant of what participants were saying instead of getting distracted by the taped sticky notes, supply of Sharpies, where I was standing and all the other logistical components of the physical experience. As a facilitator my job is to listen and guide the conversation based on participant ideas. I quickly reminded myself that I had assistants who would worry about the logistics, and that I needed to focus on the conversation.

And so the adventure continues…

Before doing an in-person session, I always imagined it would be better than the virtual experience. Upon reflection, I realized there wasn’t a better or correct approach. They were just different, each with their own advantages and disadvantages; like working in the office versus working remote.

When conducted in-person, office spaces can be utilized to spark creativity and collaboration. On the flip side, with the accelerated development of collaborative software tools, sessions can be now conducted from your desk with participants all over the world and still be highly engaging and valuable. As I anticipate my next workshop, the question of whether I will be shoulder-to-shoulder with participants or behind my desk at home is no longer a looming obstacle but an intriguing aspect I am excited to plan for.