Translating face-to-face participatory workshops to an online setting

04 June 2021

COVID-19 has changed the way many of us work all over the world. Zoom calls have replaced in-person meetings and international travel has ground to a halt. At the Sanitation Learning Hub (SLH), we used to rely on face-to-face participatory workshops as a key tool to facilitate sharing and learning within the WASH sector. These would typically involve bringing colleagues from different countries, organisations and backgrounds together for a number of days to explore and draw out lessons on diverse sanitation and hygiene topics. In recent years, SLH’s sharing and learning workshops have resulted in learning and recommendations on Rapid Action Learning approaches, the sanitation and hygiene status in East Africa and West Africa, urban CLTS, the use of financial support in CLTS, and more.

Over the last year, we have been challenged to think through how to adapt our ways of working to operate remotely. Moving a planned face-to-face workshop online to explore ways to support local government leadership and prioritisation of sanitation and hygiene in East Africa was our first test. While we’re still learning a lot about how to replicate – or find alternatives to – face-to-face participatory processes that work remotely, we wanted to share our learning so far.

Getting started

Perhaps the hardest part was getting started. It was much easier to keep putting off trialling something new in the hope that the situation would allow our original tried and tested plans to go ahead later on! When it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, we had to accept that we needed to start somewhere. Being honest with ourselves and admitting that whatever we tried may not work was important. We also knew it was unrealistic to try replicating something on the scale of our original face-to-face plans, which would have involved almost 50 people.

We decided to approach three supportive partners who had shown early interest and were willing to take part in what we clearly explained was a pilot. Rather than trying to replicate a week-long agenda online, we decided to ask partners to do more preparatory work than usual to inform subsequent discussions. We developed draft guidance to detail the process we were thinking and held early kick off calls with each of the partners to discuss the plans and get their thoughts. These conversations were essential for getting partners’ buy in and commitment to the process, as well as enabling us to adapt plans based on their feedback.

Managing time

We knew that a five-day online workshop clearly wouldn’t be feasible. Most of us struggle with more than a few hours a day on video calls, and we were conscious that COVID-19 had increased workloads for many of our already-busy partners. So we decided to split the process into two phases: an initial case study development phase where we asked partners to document their experiences relating to the workshop’s theme, followed by a series of online workshops to explore and learn from the cases across the three partners. Encouraging in-depth thinking on the topic ahead of the workshops meant we could dive into detailed discussions more quickly. In the end, we ran three online sessions of three hours each which was manageable for participants.

SLH offered tailored support for each partner as they developed their case studies, although maintaining momentum for completing the documentation ahead of the workshops was challenging given partners’ other priorities. Despite this, a key lesson for us was that the value of this stage was the thought process it encouraged that fed into the subsequent discussions, rather than the resulting documentation.

The workshops themselves included a combination of presentations by partners to provide details of their experiences to the other participants, and group work to explore learning from across the cases. While the presentations were helpful for sharing information (particularly because the documentation wasn’t complete before the initial workshops so couldn’t be shared between all participants), the group work was most popular and produced the most valuable insights.

Building trust

One of the benefits of face-to-face workshops is the opportunity for people to get to know each other and build trust and relationships. We knew replicating this in an online environment would be hard but we also felt it was important if people were to open up and feel comfortable sharing their challenges and failures as well as their successes with a group of relative strangers. Prioritising time to get to know each other and build trust was therefore important.

Following the individual calls at the start of the process, we held a joint kick off call with all the partners. This provided an opportunity to meet each other and helped build a sense of excitement for the joint learning process we were embarking on together. We then dedicated a good chunk of the first online workshop for introductions and ice breakers. As it was broadly the same people who participated in each online session, group work then offered opportunities to get to know each other further.

The hardest element of face-to-face meetings to replicate was the informal opportunities for chatting to people outside of the formal agenda. We tried opening the online meeting ‘room’ 15 minutes before each session to give people the opportunity to say ‘hi’ in an informal space (and to check technical problems) but uptake was minimal. Beyond that we struggled to think of ways to facilitate this. Although we scheduled regular breaks in the workshops (approximately every hour), understandably most people used these to take a break from their screens!

Learning, reflection and emerging lessons

As a new process, we knew that we’d have a lot to learn along the way. To make sure that we captured this learning and adapted our plans accordingly, we built in several opportunities for reflection. Facilitators held debriefs after each online workshop to discuss what worked well, what didn’t, and priorities and adaptations needed moving forward. We also kept a learning diary to note down on an ongoing basis any reflections on the process as they came to us so. And finally, we held a series of more formal reflection sessions at key points in the process to reflect on the experience to date and agree any more substantial changes that we wanted to make – either in this iteration or if we were to repeat the process again.

Through all this, SLH has learned a lot about translating a multi-day, face-to-face participatory workshop to an online setting. We will continue to refine our online approaches and hope to share more as we go but for now, here are some of our key takeaways:

  • Consider more participatory approaches to preparatory work to draw out partners’ experiences ahead of workshop discussions while reducing the documentation burden on them.
  • Invest time in introductions and relationship building – and schedule workshops at times everyone can make – to establish a supportive online environment in which people get to know each other over time.
  • Explore ways to facilitate more informal networking during or alongside workshop sessions.
  • Know how much time partners can dedicate to the process and be realistic about what can be achieved in this, prioritising group work and balancing time for networking, analysis and (in)formal learning.
  • Keep technology platforms simple and support connectivity to minimise disruptions.

N.B. You can read the learning brief which resulted from this online participatory workshop process here: Coultas. M (2021). ‘Strengthening sub-national systems for area-wide sanitation and hygiene’ Sanitation Learning Hub Learning Brief 9.