As the Covid-19 pandemic has upended what we know to be business as usual, RLUK, like many other organisations, has explored different ways of working that will allow us to continue to support and engage with our members and the wider community.

For the foreseeable future our programme of events has moved online. RLUK has used virtual meeting spaces before to consult with members and in the day to day running of the organisation. We have have also seen how beneficial they can be during this crisis in providing a place for peer-to peer support for colleagues. However, previously we had not attempted  to replicate one of our physical meetings – complete with breakout sessions – in a virtual environment.  

Our recent Associate Directors Network (ADN) meeting was our first experience in putting together a virtual workshop. I am very pleased that the ADN Co-convenors, Michelle Blake and William Nixon, have kindly shared their experience in organising and managing this event with us in this blog post.
David Prosser, Executive Director, RLUK

The RLUK Associate Director’s Network (ADN) recently ran an online workshop focussed on ‘Epic Fails’ (investigating how we can learn from situations that do not match our or others’ original expectations). The workshop included sessions on psychological safety, defining failure and strategies for better responding to failure. This was the first of three programmed workshops for 2020 and the first opportunity for the ADN members to get together this year. This was originally planned as a full day workshop to be held at the University of Edinburgh but the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis has of course resulted in university and library closures alongside a national lockdown which meant it could no longer be run – at least as originally planned, in Edinburgh.

Instead, we decided to host the workshop online using it as an experiment to put this new environment (and technology) to the test. We have written this blog post to share our experience and lessons learned for colleagues across RLUK who may be interested in running events online.

We had announced our workshop earlier in the year so many colleagues had already held the date in their diaries. We also already had an outline of the workshop, including the format, an external facilitator and our guest speaker (much thanks to Diane Job, University of Birmingham). The current crisis provided an opportunity to re-think how to use both the content and the date. We considered a number of options including deferring the workshop to later in the year and replacing it with a Virtual Assembly. This assembly would have been led by us and focused on the current situation, rather than an ‘Epic Fails’ workshop but would have still provided an opportunity to bring colleagues together. Before we made the final decision though we assessed both our programme outcomes and the technology (Zoom) to explore, with our facilitator, how we could move at least some of the workshop online.

Workshop Programme Redux

A review of the platform and the workshop outcomes were invaluable and gave us the confidence to go ahead with a shorter online version of the workshop – with the added caveat that it would also be an opportunity to try a mix of technologies out as the ADN.

Using an institutional Zoom subscription enabled us to deliver the workshop over 4 hours and to provide mix of formats with virtual breakout rooms and more traditional presentations. These rooms were a key factor in our decision to run the meeting as a workshop – and not just a series of presentations. Zoom supports up to 50 breakout rooms and 200 attendees. We used 4 rooms and attendees were moved into their own Zoom room for discussion with peers before coming back to the joint meeting. These were very successful and one of our attendees commented that it was as close to a Star Trek ‘beam me up’ moment as they ever expected to have as they moved from the breakout room back to the main session.

We reviewed the timings for the day and given the online environment agreed to shorten the programme to half a day. This did require us to reduce the content covered and we made the decision to remove planned coaching sessions which were due to take place in groups of three. It was felt that these would be the most difficult content to deliver in the online environment and added further complexity to what we were already planning to deliver.

The final event ran from 9:30 until 1pm including a 15-20 minute break. The Zoom session was opened from 9am to provide scope for informal chat amongst colleagues before the session started at 9:30am.

During the workshop itself we were able to trial the use of:

  • Screen Sharing
  • Playing a video for all participants
  • Breakout rooms
  • Zoom poll
  • Use of Google Jamboards for collaboration within break out group (post-it note feature)
  • Guest speaker who presented a case study

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned for the workshop fall into two categories, lessons around the workshop programme itself including the mix of formats, length and tools and running the session itself via Zoom. While other video-conferencing platforms are available we used Zoom since we had access to our institutional Zoom Enterprise and more familiarity with it.

Workshop Programme Lessons

  • Focus on the content and the outcomes you want to achieve
  • Think about what will and won’t lend itself to an online environment
  • Think about the timings and the overall length of the workshop (and individual sessions). You can’t replicate timings from a face to face workshop so aim to reduce the length of activities where possible.
  • Choose a technical tool to capture workshop discussions that can be shared after e.g. Zoom Whiteboards or Google Jamboards
  • Make sure you test any platforms and tools you are going to use. It’s really important to get the right settings in place
  • If possible, check how familiar your attendees are with the platform and the tools you will be using. Where possible try to use straightforward tools that people do not need experience of – and highlight the broad programme and the tools in advance.
  • Having distinct roles for co-hosts is invaluable, providing continuity across the workshop, feeding in chat comments, generating discussion and highlighting comments made.

Running the session via Zoom

  • Set-up a secure Zoom session. Institutions like the University of Glasgow have recently published updated guidance on Zoom security and privacy. Attendees should also ensure they install the latest updates from Zoom.
  • Testing, Testing, Testing (but recognise there may still be things you need to pick-up or work with once the session is live with 25 plus people!)
  • Co-hosts are vital, you need at least two co-hosts, but we recommend more to participate and join in breakout rooms – but co-hosts can’t start or close breakout rooms, only hosts can so keep that in mind when you decide whose Zoom to use (you can have multiple hosts with the same institutional membership)
  • Send out some basic Zoom etiquette in advance. We included asking participants to have their video on, mute their mic, to use reactions e.g raise their hand if they want to speak, and use the chat feature.
  • Use a Zoom poll as an icebreaker and to gauge familiarity with Zoom
  • Set-up breakout rooms in advance and keep an eye on anyone who may not be in a breakout room so they can be moved into one – or had left the meeting and come back but only re-joined the main session. Looking ahead we may run that differently with registration to map attendees to breakout rooms.
  • As a host once you are in a breakout room we found you couldn’t message the whole group, or send a broadcast message or close the rooms until you are back in the main session
  • Ensure that you schedule breaks and suggest that during the break participants stay connected but stop video and mute their mics, it makes easier for everyone coming back (and any breakout room assignments made during the session aren’t lost) and as colleagues come back there’s scope for some informal chat before the workshop resumes
  • At the end of the workshop, as the host, don’t hit End Meeting for All, let everyone leave at their own pace, and say goodbye just as you would in a live session.
  • Zoom provides a recording option, we did not record the session and made that very clear to all attendees

Looking Ahead

We would like to thank Lara Isbel, our facilitator who worked with us in re-configuring it as an online workshop – a first for all of us – and was brave enough to facilitate the workshop. And to all our ADN colleagues who engaged so positively in this experimental online workshop making the event a success.

We can’t claim it was the same as all being together in person but the mix of content, formats and technology provided us with valuable outputs from the day and helped us to all stay connected. Online won’t, or can’t wholly replace the physical meetings but it’s good to know that they provide a viable option to support us coming together to work and share collaboratively.

Finally, we’d like to leave you with a thought ‘The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.’