The last eight months have seen Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s wealth of events and meetings move from actual to virtual. As someone used to delivering workshops face to face – despite an early fear of speaking in front of large groups – Interim Portfolio Lead for Strategic Planning Stuart Donald offers us some food for thought.

Earlier this year, on my way to deliver a fairly typical workshop in a fairly typical conference room, I started thinking about my early experiences of speaking in front of large groups of people.  As I’m sure is the case for most of us, this involved getting up in front of my high school English class and talking for five minutes about whatever generic topic our teacher could think of.  Being an awkward, ridiculously self-conscious teenager, it wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had – particularly when it got to the point of panic attacks and vomiting.  

If you’d told that kid that twenty odd years later he’d end up speaking to large groups of people for a living and that he’d actually enjoy it and be pretty good at it, he would probably have laughed in your face.  Then vomited again.

Cutting a very long story short, over time and with a load of trial and error, the sheer terror of speaking to large groups of people gave way first to an ability to tolerate it, then to enjoying it and ultimately to approaching a level of competence.  The nerves and self-doubt never go away, you just find ways to use them positively.

The point is that often the only way to take the fear out of something is to just get on and do it, that way you learn what works – and what doesn’t.

The days of getting a group of people into the same room to discuss, debate, share ideas, collaborate and generally put the world to rights might be a long time returning.  For those of us whose work largely revolved around doing exactly that, we’ve had to figure out how we do it in an inclusive, yet physically distant way.

As Healthcare Improvement Scotland is an organisation that’s all about finding out what works well and what can be improved, a small team of us have pulled together learning from across the organisation to help us all get better at collaborating virtually. Here’s some of what we’ve learned.

Accept that it’s not the same as face to face

We’ve all experienced the joy of sitting staring at a blank flipchart while nobody answers the facilitator’s questions.  Or the awkward ‘introduce yourself to the rest of the room’ and ‘share an interesting fact about yourself’ ice-breaker.  Do we really need to recreate that virtually?  I really, REALLY hope not.

Everyone knows the way we work now and in the future is going to change, so we need to adapt and maybe move out of our comfort zones a bit.  For example, why do you need to run a virtual workshop ‘live’?  Could you get the same, or better, outcomes by setting some sort of challenge to people and giving them a set time to complete it?  Naturally there’s going to be risks and benefits to doing that, but that’s true of running something live too – if it’s going to achieve the outcomes you’re working towards, just do it.

Don’t be limited to one way of working. Try things out, keep doing what works, stop doing what doesn’t.  By focussing on outcomes and the needs of our participants, we can design effective interventions that work for us.

How will you make sure everyone can participate?

Any time we run any kind of meeting or event we should always be thinking about accessibility.  Virtual collaborations are no different.  For example, you don’t need to be thinking about physical access to a venue, but you do still need to think about things like how people with sensory impairments can participate.

It’s important to remember that accessibility also means your participants having access to technology and the confidence to use it.  As we get more and more used to communicating virtually, we need to make sure we’re not putting up unnecessary technological barriers for our participants as well.  For example, do you know if some people might have to join your session using a smartphone rather than a PC or laptop?  How does that change the experience for them?  What do you need to do to make sure they can still participate?

It’s a team effort

You could certainly try and run a virtual meeting or event yourself, but I wouldn’t recommend it!  What if your technology fails, the cat jumps on your keyboard and disconnects you from the session, or a child really must tell you RIGHT NOW all about the episode of Paw Patrol they’ve just watched?  Take it from me, these things happen…

There are lots of eventualities and you can’t always prepare for them all, but as a minimum a good virtual session needs a delivery team. This includes someone to lead and facilitate the session, a backup facilitator, someone to monitor the chat box and respond to comments or flag them to the facilitator and someone who can support participants who need any extra help or IT troubleshooting (and potentially, someone who can provide 1-2-1 support throughout to anyone who couldn’t otherwise participate). The bigger the meeting or event, the bigger the delivery team you’ll need.  In Healthcare Improvement Scotland we’re very fortunate to have so many talented and helpful colleagues to help deliver virtual meetings and events, so make the most of them.

Share your learning

As with everything we do, we should be seeking feedback and learning to help us improve for next time.  Ask your participants, have a debrief amongst your delivery group, be honest with yourself about what worked well, what could have been better, and what you would do differently next time.  Then share those insights with everyone else.

I’m not going to lie, I really miss presenting to a room full of people.  The thought that it could be six months or more before I get to experience that buzz again is a bit sad.  Delivering things virtually is definitely a different thing altogether, but it’s been great to learn about how as an organisation we’ve already started to embrace it, and to help pull what we’ve learned so far into something we can all keep building on.

Stuart Donald is Interim Portfolio Lead for Strategic Planning, within the Transformational Redesign Unit in the ihub

More information

For more information on the work of the Transformational Redesign Unit visit the ihub website.