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How to Overcome Resistance During Virtual Workshops

Virtual workshops are not the same as face to face ones; they have challenges of their own. Learn how to overcome virtual resistance.

By Gustavo Razzetti

May 7, 2020

Regardless of how your company adapts to the new normal, remote work will play a significant role in most teams and organizations. Dealing with resistance is vital to accelerate your team’s learning and productivity. Poorly facilitated virtual workshops can lead to frustration and disengagement.

I’ve been facilitating remote sessions every day for the past two months– from shorter sessions to full-day or multiple-day workshops. The difference in managing virtual workshops– compared to how it was before – is that now most participants have limited experience collaborating remotely. They’re learning as they go; the usual challenges of remote work are amplified by fear and inexperience.

In this post, I will address the most common types of resistance during virtual sessions and how to facilitate great online workshops. Don’t let the resistance get in the way of learning and creativity.

The Most Frequent Challenges of Running Remote Workshops

Remote collaboration has several advantages, but to reap the full benefits, you must first understand the challenges ahead. Many people believe that moving a face-to-face workshop to the online realm is a matter of choosing a virtual platform.

While some elements translate to a virtual workshop, most components need to be redesigned to facilitate a successful session. From virtual etiquette and the role of technology to driving participation and keeping momentum, a remote workshop comes with its own challenges. Anticipating issues (and how you would deal with them) is the difference between night and day.

Virtual Etiquette – set up clear expectations ahead of the session and repeat them before it begins. Online workshops require a particular etiquette to align people on what’s okay and what’s not.

How will people work together? When can they use audio and when not? How will decisions be made when they need to pick an idea to develop further? What matters most, learning or the outcome?

Each session requires a particular etiquette, as I explained here. These tips could include using essential Zoom functions (i.e. the mute button), being present (focus on the task at hand, don’t multitask), and the expected mindset (learner, problem-solver, etc.).

The lack of specific etiquette could quickly derail a team and turn the session into a waste of time and talent.

Technical challenges – while you simply use technology during a face-to-face workshop, on a virtual session, technology becomes the platform. The issues with technology include relying on everyone’s home Internet connection, familiarity with essential functions, and mastering collaborative tools such as Mural or Miro.

Give people tips on how to prepare and have your IT department provide specifications when it comes to connectivity, etc. Investing in good quality headphones, for example, can make a huge difference. If possible, companies should provide people with what they need to work from home effectively.

Another issue is people’s resistance to using technology that they are not familiar with. I will address that in a moment.

Team size – the size of a team is directly proportionate to engagement and productivity. The more participants you have, the more the result will suffer. Be mindful of who you invite to the workshop; avoid duplications or unnecessary participants.

Break out rooms help deal with this challenge, but they have their limitations. You will need more facilitators and this will also eat plenty of time as, at some point, teams have to share their work with the broader team. If the different break out teams don’t interact with each other, try running different, smaller sessions rather than one massive workshop.

Driving alignment – how you launch a team at the beginning can make or break your virtual workshop. The facilitator must create the right environment in a limited time and bring everyone together. Having the team complete an exercise ahead of the session, then discussing the findings together, can save you a lot of frustration.

Alignment starts with the etiquette, as I mentioned above. The most crucial part is that people are not only clear on what they want to accomplish but also excited to be working together.

Driving alignment in a remote environment can be more difficult. Not being in the same room, body language, and silence can create mixed signals. Preparation, effective session design, and expert facilitators can help overcome this challenge.  

Active participation – engaging everyone at the very beginning is crucial, but continuous involvement is a must to leverage collective wisdom and make people feel appreciated.

Virtual workshops can be draining. They require more attention and energy; things happen much faster, and participants feel more stressed as they don’t want to make mistakes while working with new tools and methodologies.

It’s easy to lose someone when you are transitioning from Mural to Zoom, or when they’re going back to the main room after spending some time in a breakout room.

Designing a hands-on, interactive session helps build participation. However, facilitation is everything to keep people focused and engaged, as I wrote here.

Conversation flow is slower – if people interrupt each other or lack active listening skills during face-to-face interactions, things get much worse in a remote setting. Regardless of how well a session is designed, effective facilitation can make or break communication.

Chats are okay for short interactions but can get messy pretty quickly. People often repeat someone else’s ideas because they aren’t reading what others wrote before. It’s very common for people to forget to unmute their microphones and then complain because no one reacted to what they said.

Taking turns, making sure everyone has answered, and dealing with quiet voices are critical steps to ensure participation. However, they have a downside; they slow down the flow.

Some Tips to Overcome Resistance during Virtual Workshops

Time is a beautiful constraint

Timeboxing can become your best ally; use it to your favor. People often complain about how they waste time on meetings. However, when we use time as a constraint, they usually rebel.

Limiting the time per activity challenges people to move into action. It’s better to have three 5-minute rounds of ideation than one that takes 15 minutes. The rush feeling keeps people on their toes, but also allows them to explore different prompts and see which inspires the best ideas.

Push back; invite people to explore resistance

What is often considered a tech challenge is a people challenge. Individuals tend to blame a software or collaborative tool, rather than facing their own boundaries and how they get in the way of learning.

When people say, “Mural is not working,” I first double-check that they are doing the right thing. Are they on the right canvas? Did I share the correct link? Are they watching my Mural screen-share on Zoom or looking at the browser? Small misunderstandings can get people frustrated pretty quickly.

However, most of the time, the issues are not tech-based but people-driven. Some folks don’t want to make mistakes in front of their colleagues. No one wants to acknowledge that they don’t know how to use a particular tech platform. Instead of embracing a learning mindset, perfectionism gets them stuck.

Push people back. Sometimes, it gets really uncomfortable for both the participant and the facilitator. Blaming tech is an easy way out, so invite people to reflect what’s causing the resistance. Make sure they don’t take your pushback personally. Find the right balance. Each session is a unique challenge to deal with.

Digest the content to overcome endless discussions

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a bit of a babysitting practice that pays great dividends.

We usually run a couple of exercises and surveys to uncover cultural tensions. I used to share critical findings and allow time for discussions. In the past few weeks, my team and I spent much more time analyzing the results. We provide a 2×2 matrix with four specific themes and the insights/ findings that support them. I then ask each team, during breakout sessions, to focus on one of the topics.

The approach is simple: to solve complex cultural problems, it’s more effective to break it down into smaller, solvable chunks.

I usually don’t want to take the workload off a team, but digesting the content ahead saves a lot of time. It also avoids people getting stuck rehashing the issues and allows them to spend more time on problem-solving.

Have people focus on the work, not the process

I’m a fan of not sharing what will happen during the session. I provide a simple agenda upfront that describes what the team will achieve on crucial sections, but not what they will do.

Anticipation is usually an issue. Trying to understand how things work and will happen next is part of human nature. However, that mindset gets in the way of learning. Focusing on the process is a way of manifesting resistance. Rather than playing (sharing the first idea that comes to mind), they want to feel in control (try to make sense of process).

Name team captains; use them as needed

I believe in participation when it comes to decision-making. However, driving alignment doesn’t always mean using a democratic approach. When things get stuck, someone has to disentangle the team and make things happen.

Often a facilitator can play that role, but you don’t want to make a decision on behalf of the team. Having a captain doesn’t mean that one person will be in charge, either. But, when the team can’t make progress, the captain can use persuasion or power to push people in the right direction.

Captains don’t have to have formal authority in the organization, but a particular authority is delegated to them that during the session. It also creates an exciting tension; people are invited to participate, but if they can’t make a decision, the captain will step up for them.

Create interactions without video

Zoom fatigue is becoming a big issue. To overcome backlash, use video mindfully; use email or phone when possible. For example, for more ‘vulnerable’ exercises, like answering the 36 questions that turn strangers into friends, we pair people in duos and encourage them that they have a conversation over the phone, without video.

Give Zoom a break. Having well-designed breaks is crucial. Encourage people to turn off their cameras, hydrate, do some stretch exercises, and walk around their houses.

Another effective practice is to have people doing silent brainstorming as a warm-up before sharing ideas with their colleagues. During this time, play some music, ask people to turn off their cameras, and encourage them to write their thoughts on a piece of paper or post-its.

Having small interactions without video will help reenergize the team and avoid Zoom fatigue.

Never leave a virtual workshop without an experiment

Regardless of the purpose of the workshop, you don’t want people to leave empty-handed. Make time for people to design an experiment before the session is over. People should commit to a particular date and define specific metrics to evaluate the outcome.

I use the Culture Experiment Canvas to push people to create well-defined experiments and move them into action. Procrastination after a workshop is a common form of resistance.  Ask them to commit to an immediate date to start the experiment. You don’t need to wait for Monday to start a diet;  the same applies to trying new behaviors.

Set up a follow-up session to check how the experiment is going and support the team through the testing.

As your company becomes more used to the new normal, your teams will spend more time in online workshops and remote meetings. Make sure you can understand what drives resistance and work on overcoming it with effective planning, facilitation, and session design.

Remote facilitation isn’t just the future, it’s the present. Reach out and let’s discuss how we can help you to have more engaging and productive virtual workshops.

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