By Darren Duarte , on Mar 23, 2020

How to run a remote, 80-person workshop during the Covid-19 pandemic

A conference call with multiple hands interacting with digital devices

Like many companies and non-profit organizations, Contentful has asked employees to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re learning a lot about hosting virtual meetings and working with colleagues at a distance. Moving our bi-weekly sprint bazaar online — a workshop of more than 80 people — has proven to be a particularly educational experience.

Since we aren’t the only community practicing social distancing, we wanted to share what we’ve learned. The same approach to online learning and collaboration could apply to schools and nonprofits.

The Contentful sprint review bazaar

If you haven’t experienced a conventional sprint review bazaar, imagine a science fair for adults. Numerous tables sit around the edge of a large room for team presentations, complete with visual aids. But instead of baking-soda volcanoes and potato-run clocks, teams present the projects they worked on during the prior sprint. Projects range from detailed code reviews and user interviews to information about new office designs. Attendees circulate, listening and contributing.

Bazaars begin with announcements for everyone. Presentation teams then take their places and attendees from across the company move from one table to another. Ideally, attendees abide to the established schedule, staying at each table for the same amount of time.

Sprint review bazaars are great for generating conversations amongst people who might not otherwise interact. They help teams see projects in a different light and consider overlooked aspects. Attendees enjoy greater connection and learn about how they contribute to overall company goals.

Now imagine moving that science fair online.

We needed to arrange an online venue for the initial gathering of 80 people that also accommodates the small groups that form around presenters.

Thankfully, Zoom accommodates both needs. We welcomed presenters and attendees to a shared main room. When it came time for team presentations, each attendee was automatically assigned to a random breakout room where a presenter waited. At the end of each session, presenters changed breakout rooms.

We had some initial confusion — how to join breakout rooms, do presenters change rooms or do attendees, why can’t I join the breakout room I prefer. The group chat feature allowed us to mitigate this confusion. People couldn’t mill about as normal — they had to stay in their breakout rooms for the scheduled amount of time — which caused some frustration but ultimately led to better, more focused conversations. Without the usual background noise and temptation to jump between tables, everyone stayed engaged in a more sustained way.

In addition to teaching and continuing operations, online meetings like our sprint review bazaar help alleviate feelings of isolation. They’re also a place to encourage movement — a beginning stretch session might be the only time participants think about moving all day.

A videocall meeting with 80 people

Our Contentful team still having fun during the remote Sprint Review Bazaar

What you need to set up

Although there are several providers that could facilitate a similar experience, we use Zoom for our remote meetings, therefore, these set-up instructions cover Zoom specifically.

You’ll need a few essentials:

  • Reliable internet connection capable of video conferencing.

  • Video camera and microphone set up for your computer.

  • A video conferencing account. (We used Zoom, and you can now use Zoom for free if you’re an educational institution.)

  • Presentations or real time collaboration tools (Google Documents, Atlassian confluence).

Planning

Remote meetings, teaching and workshops require a bit of planning. Improvising is hard when that many people connect digitally, so we recommend a bit of overpreparation. Read through settings and make necessary adjustments and do a practice run. These settings worked best for us:

1. Enable “breakout rooms”

Emanling breakout rooms

2. Enable “always show meeting” control toolbar and allow screen sharing

Enabling always show meeting toolbar

3. Enable “co-hosts”

Enabling "co-hosts"

4. Disable “full screen” while screen sharing

Disabling “full screen”

For more information on how to use these Zoom features and other collaboration tools, please visit the following sites:

Application in schools

Think about a typical class of 30 students, and imagine the teacher planned a lesson about exponential curves using Covid-19 case data from the World Health Organisation. The teacher would probably create a lesson plan that involves class-wide conversation and some small-group projects. Students would bring their desks together to work in small groups.

We want to recreate that experience using Zoom. To do so, it’s good to establish a community agreement. Think of it as online etiquette.

  1. All participants mute their microphones when not speaking. This allows everyone to hear the person talking and avoid distracting background noises.

  2. Everyone leaves their video cameras on the entire time. It’s important to see everyone’s face because it allows for more forms of communication. People will stay more alert and better understand each other. The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when someone has connectivity issues.

To begin the session over Zoom, everyone joins the same conference room. The teacher might give an introduction that explains graphing data and exponential curves by sharing their screen with the students. After this group-wide presentation, they assign a project for groups of five: graph the COVID-19 cases over time for an assigned country. Share your graph with the entire class and note the exponential dates for your country.

As the meeting host, the teacher would start breakout rooms on the Zoom call. There is an option to manually assign or automatically assign people to room. The automatically assign function as it’s quicker, so the students would be randomly sorted into their groups. A window would pop up for students, requesting them to join their assigned breakout room.

The teacher might make use of the text chat function that’s visible across the main room and breakout rooms to circulate the data from the WHO.

The teacher wouldn’t lose touch with students, though. As the teacher is the host of the video conference, they can jump into each of the rooms to see how the student groups are progressing. The students could also invite the teacher to join their room if they need help.

Note: we’ve found that if a screen share is enabled, most people won’t see the chat menu because screen sharing opens in full-screen mode unless the setting has been changed. This setting needs to be changed before joining the session.

When the teacher chooses, the breakout rooms can be closed with a 60 second countdown on all of the participants screens. They’ll rejoin the main room and share their projects.

Similar projects could be repeated in different small group compositions, with students going between the main room and breakout rooms. Because Zoom small groups can’t be chosen when using the automatically-assigned feature, students won’t be able to return to the same small group. It is possible to assign groups manually before the meeting starts, in which case students will remain in the same small group the entire time.

Applications for nonprofit organizations

This setup could extend to various types of nonprofit organizations. Teams at food banks might need to design new systems for food distribution, or community centers might need to devise alternative transportation options to help an elderly population travel between home and doctor appointments.

Imagine a twenty-person team trying to solve this problem, all from their own home. A flexible Zoom call with a main room and various breakout rooms could alleviate some of the increased difficulties created by social distancing.

Doing our part

At Contentful, we continue to look around for ways to contribute to efforts to solve the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope that sharing our remote strategies will help others be a little more comfortable and productive while social distancing.

Darren Duarte

Agile coach at Contentful