In the past few months, many ‘real’ workshops have been hustled into the virtual realm, with varying degrees of success. While brilliant for inclusiveness, accessibility, and blurring geographic boundaries, not all content and not all formats work well virtually. For that matter, not all content and formats work in a ‘real’ workshop either. Please consult the figure below for a very quick and dirty decision-chart to see if your event needs to be a workshop. It might not and you will have freed up many, many days of planning, running, and recovering from a multi-day event. 

Caption: Quick and dirty ‘why focused’ decision chart on whether or not your event should be a workshop (probably both of the options that go to ‘No’, could be a ‘Yes’ with a serious rethink)

‘Workshop’ itself is a loaded and difficult word. There are expectations and assumptions tied to it and people in a lot of sectors and fields now suffer from workshop fatigue. It is vital now in times of physical distancing and remote working across time zones that that things that don’t work in workshops are not just transferred on to a virtual stage, and even more important that we have a serious rethink of what even gets workshopped. For the purposes of this piece, let us assume that a workshop at the very least is a set of activities organized over a period of n number of days where the active, collaborative input of a diverse array of stakeholders is necessary for the purposes of co-creatively arriving at a solution of a complex problem. This is already asking a lot from a workshop. I am from the environmental, geographical, and food systems space, so this is the very least of what a workshop should be. Observe that we are not getting into what a successful workshop is.  

Here I would like to focus on two necessary factors in deciding whether or not have to a workshop (online or in the real). This is not at all to remove focus from the necessities of exploring good workshop design, the technicalities of internet connections and online collaboration tools, and how to ensure that participation in inclusive. The concern here is to decide whether or not the activity under question should be a workshop. 

For this purpose, I will focus today on the why and the who of workshops.

Let us start with a well-articulated and focused purpose. The participants need to know exactly why they need to be at the workshop. The participants must know what they will contribute towards, and that the contribution will be necessary in achieving the core purpose. There are those deceptive workshops that have no ‘work’ and were run primarily to share information. Interactivity there exists mainly to break up the deadening stream of PowerPoint to keep people (mostly) awake. These are not workshops. These could have been replaced by material that was shared with the participants over email, mailed documents, or a phone call, or called something else. There have been many online workshops recently where the ‘live’ attendance aspect did not bring a real value addition. The contents could have been shared in other forms, and the discussion could have been had in a focused asynchronous manner. In summary, if the main content of your workshop already exists as an available resource and you can write it out in simple and approachable language in less than an hour, please do so. Do not run a workshop. 

Less is more. Less is kinder. 

Now let us consider who attends workshops and who is necessary (this is also a loaded word, but let’s put that aside for now). Wrangling together the necessary stakeholders across power structures was difficult in the best of times (we can argue over which times these were). How many poor, vulnerable, marginalized people can actually make it to workshops that also have the high-powered decision-makers who need to hear from them? Also, while it is wonderful that there is a major push for diversity and inclusiveness in workshops, but please know that if someone has been invited mainly because they check a box, they definitely know about it and it sucks.  

When do people decide that it is, yet another workshop and their situations are likely not to change? I recognize that a healthy chunk of workshops do (thankfully) contribute to lasting change for the better and I hope that many of us out there can point to at least one example from their professional and personal histories. How many virtual workshops about the future of agriculture have real and meaningful engagement from those on which our entire food system exists? We can also argue over what ‘real’, ‘meaningful’, and ‘engagement’ mean.  

We are all living through stressful situations. Younger academics and professionals specially are being pushed to do more, work harder, work longer hours, and under difficult situations. Let us at least make sure that if we are asking people to commit many hours of their time, expertise, and mental space, that they definitely need to be at a workshop, and your event definitely needs to be a workshop.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.