Winning the Virtual Marathon

On 4 October more than 45,000 people ran their own London Marathon’s, many in the lashing rain with all non-elite athletes forced to take part remotely due to the pandemic. I think many of us feel some sympathy with these rain-sodden runners, as we have all been running our own virtual marathon since March.

I started facilitating virtually about nine years ago, in the day when we would spend a good 15 minutes getting everyone connected successfully. Most people opted to use their phone lines, as ‘computer through audio’ was a weird and wonderful concept which they feared. We would also set expectations that video would certainly fail at some point during the session and it took quite some persuading to get people to leave it on.

Fast forward to 2020 post Covid’s arrival… and I’ve just completed a four-week virtual marathon of my own for one client. Every misnomer about virtual delivery was busted over those four weeks, and we perfected our virtual extravaganza to within an inch of its life.

I caught sight of a colleague commenting on LinkedIn that she didn’t believe virtual events longer than 3 hours could have meaningful impact. She’s someone whose work I value enormously so I found my eyes popping out and realized that there were some further learnings we could share.

Shortly after lockdown we converted a two-day event into a 1.5 day virtual event, our recommendation to our client was that the second day needed to be shortened. It was a huge success and I talked about our learnings in this blog – all of which we have now built on to convert a two-day residential program to a two-day digital extravaganza event.

We ended on a record-beating high – 100% of leaders said the pace was ‘just right’, the length of the event was ‘just right’, plus 100% rated the entire event very good or excellent.

So, what did we learn this time?

  1. Frame it right – pre-event comms need to build excitement about the upcoming Digital Residential, rather than fear of just another 2 days on zoom’.
  2. Coach the peer coaches – like any Residential, Digital Residentials can’t be all about learning new models and tools – there has to be a big focus on solving their real world challenges. Making sure the leaders can effectively coach each other means a whole network of supportive coaches to challenge each other to action.
  3. Scaffold the event with an online platform – a platform like Cappfinity’s ‘My Strengths Coach’ where participants can see each other’s contributions, learn more about each other, co-create and access additional materials helps support the Digital Residential before, during and after the event.
  4. Curtain raisers are not just for theatre – a warm-up event to provide some informal networking with easy activities begins to build cohesion amongst the group outside of the ‘main event’.
  5. Silent zooms are silent – magic happens when mental space is provided – even virtually.
  6. Lunching is a 60-minute endeavour – we did experiment with walk & talk activities over lunch, but recognized that participants needed a complete break, as well as knowing in advance what time it was going to happen.
  7. Big questions require some thought – we recognized the need to pause before throwing people into a breakout with a group of strangers – to provide an opportunity to reflect on the questions beforehand.
  8. The random breakout generator isn’t always random – the larger the group, the longer the session, the less likely the word ‘random’ will come into play. We found that manual intervention was required to enable the networking across the group.
  9. Not just choirs need multiple voices – two facilitators, ideally of differing styles plus a guest speaker and extra coaches for the ‘peer coaching sessions’ – all provide those critical mental shifts and variety for the participants.
  10. Taking care of tech – digital producers are essential for events of more than 20 participants to monitor communication, make contact with missing participants and manage the tech so everything runs smoothly.

So, despite the world being zoomed out and us constantly saying YAOM (you are on mute), be careful not to assume we can’t create world records in the virtual space just like our sodden remote marathon runners.