Every so often the BBC Parliament channel re-runs Election Night broadcasts, and if you catch it, the 2010 one features a short clip of one of the studio team eating a banana directly behind Robert Peston.  I know this, because that person is me.

I worked in the main studio for both the 2005 and 2010 elections, as well as in New York for the 2008 US Presidential elections.  I also worked on countless radio outside broadcasts when I worked in local radio, and on the pilot of The One Show in the summer of 2006, when the studio was a Perspex box in  the middle of the Mailbox in Birmingham, and the gallery (where the programme is controlled from) was in a truck parked a couple of hundred yards away.

When I applied for my job in the NHS, I didn’t expect the skills I gained working on these big broadcast events would be quite so applicable; but I’ve found I use them regularly, none more so than organising the virtual away day we held for the Improvement Directorate last week.

Why a virtual away day?

Horizons pitched the idea for a virtual away day at the end of last year for a number of reasons.  It was clear there was value in getting the Improvement Directorate together. The directorate was newly formed last April, and there had been many personnel and team changes in the meantime.  But getting several hundred staff together in one place, when they are usually based across the country, is both a logistical challenge and a significant financial undertaking. 

From an individual perspective, days like this can be disruptive: often requiring long train journeys that start early and end late, or an overnight stay. For some staff this is a regular requirement of their role, but for others, who are usually office-based, this can either mean significant disruption to their personal life or not being able to attend.

Virtual offered a different approach.  We didn’t see it as a replacement, but we wanted to see if we could offer a positive experience for participants where they got the benefits of a networking and group learning experience, without having to all gather in a single location.

What we did

The programme we eventually arrived at was:

  • 10:00-11:00 – Opening Plenary
  • 11.30-12.30 – Morning breakout sessions
  • 13:30-14:30 – Afternoon breakout sessions
  • 15:00-16:00 – Closing Plenary

We had originally intended to have more plenary sessions in between the breakouts, but we decided it was getting overly complicated and not giving participants sufficient time away from their screen.

We used the Webex platform to run the sessions; one for the plenary session and six simultaneous Webex sessions for the breakouts. Each session had one or more presenters, a tech host and a facilitator assigned to them: 

  • Tech hosts are responsible for any technical issues (uploading slides, connecting presenters with issues, assigning privileges etc)
  • Facilitators are MCs, there to keep the show on the road whatever is happening behind the scenes and help generate discussion and interaction.
  • The presenters are the content specialists – let them concentrate on that. (Here are our notes for presenters).

We set up a webpage that listed all the sessions with the relevant Webex links to them.  The page updated throughout the day so only the next session links were live. Each session opened 20 minutes before so that people could join and know they were connected to video and audio so they could participate fully once the session started.

We ran some test sessions so that people could check that they could connect to Webex.

What happened

We had 280 people join the opening plenary session. This number dropped slightly to 220 by the closing plenary.  That’s roughly 50% of the Directorate, when you exclude people who were absent or had other commitments.

In feedback in the closing session, there was a lot of positive reaction to the day, with many comments saying “it was better than they had expected it to be”, which was a good sign.

What we learned

Here is the main learning from the event:

  • Having people with clear roles is important for the smooth operation of the sessions; don’t skim on these roles, or try and double them up. 
  • Invest time with presenters to develop sessions that are interactive and make use of the digital platform.  Don’t run information-heavy sessions; rather create sessions that pose questions and generate discussion among participants.
  • Similarly invest in your tech hosts and facilitators so they are confident in what they are doing. Virtual facilitation requires different skills to running physical events, so don’t assume one can do the other.
  • Basic things like ensuring presenters are in quiet places, with headsets and positioning their camera properly (lens in-line with your eyes) all make a big difference for participants.  Poor sound is the biggest distraction and people will switch off rather than keep listening to something that they are struggling to hear.
  • Setting the tone, and building in suitable amounts of interaction at start of the session can be the difference between it being successful or not.  Identify and ‘plant’ participants who can role-model good behaviour through things like starting and reacting to conversations.
  • Different people come with different experiences of webinars: some want to interact, some prefer to sit back and participate passively.  One isn’t better than the other.
  • Equally, people are at different levels of expertise with the technical aspects of using a webinar platform.  Whether by preference, or limited access to equipment, a proportion of participants like to dial-in and download the slides to follow along that way.
  • Where possible encourage people to watch as groups, particularly the plenary sessions.  Book a meeting room or put it on a big screen.
  • That said, one of the more interesting pieces of feedback was that participants felt uncomfortable taking part when they were sat in an open plan office, when they weren’t sure who else could hear them.  There’s a case for letting people work remotely.
  • Leaving the sessions open at the end allowed people to continue to chat.  One takeaway from discussing with colleagues who joined as participants was whilst there were fewer opportunities to network, when they did happen they were really valuable: the chat room allowed you to connect with the exact person you wanted to connect with, not the random colleague who happened to be stood behind you in the lunch queue.
  • Feedback from the day included people who felt they spent too long starring at the screens, so in our design reducing the dependency on PowerPoint and more telling stories so that people can sit and listen rather than having to watch.

What we would do differently next time:

  • We used Webex because it was the most stable platform that we knew would work.  NHS England and Improvement are in the process of rolling out MS Teams, and this looks like it would be a great tool for future events.
  • We spent a lot of time trying to generate content for the day. Now that the Directorate has experienced this event, we think it’ll be easier to get people to be presenters.  That means we can spend more time with them developing their sessions and getting them confident with presenting on a webinar.
  • As always, we want to improve the diversity (in its widest sense) of the people presenting, and use the opportunity to promote people who don’t usually get to lead these events.
  • We’re creating an informal network of people in our Directorate who are, or want to be, Tech Hosts and Facilitators.  Working with people outside our teams allowed us to see how different people worked and swap some best practice.
  • Our group size was between 20 and 90, and some people felt that people didn’t want to speak in the larger groups because of the number of people listening.  We are considering whether we should we look at running more smaller groups, and whether we have enough facilitators and tech hosts to manage that.
  • Away Days need a jam-packed schedule to maximise the value of getting everyone in the same place. If you remove that requirement, you don’t have to run the event in that way.  We could do two concurrent half-days or a series of lunchtime sessions.

Since Helen tweeted about running the event, we’ve had lots of enquiries from within the NHS and outside about this work.  Worries about the Coronavirus and the desire to reduce large gatherings of people have played their part in piquing peoples’ interest in the concept.

We’re looking at running a similar event for another part of NHS England and Improvement, and supporting an external organisation we’ve worked with previously to help develop their own event.  We’d be interested to find out what other people are doing.

For me, other than it all working relatively successfully, the best thing about it was finishing at 4pm and not having to make the mad dash to get a train, hoping that it wouldn’t be delayed, so that I would be back to pick my daughter up from nursery (or at least she wouldn’t be last again).