Online Workshops - Tips and Tricks

During the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions and social distancing across the world, many meetings are being held “virtually” using various online meeting platforms e.g. WebEx, MS Teams, Skype, Zoom, etc. I have facilitated process safety and major hazard identification, risk assessment and project review workshop meetings over many years, so it has been interesting this year to see a very quick shift in the company safety experts’ thinking around online workshops.

Before COVID-19, workshop meetings like HAZID, HAZOP and risk assessments would (as much as practical) always be face to face; online was the exception in a few meetings for those who couldn’t travel or be in the same place at the same time. The facilitator, scribe and core team were always in the same room. This was to ensure a quality study outcome, i.e. all core team attendees in one meeting room able to interact directly with the facilitator and others in the room, keep up to speed with all conversations and use paper, whiteboards, drawings, etc. to explain their argument and reasoning. workshop image-1The current thinking during pandemic restrictions is that it is completely acceptable for all attendees to be in remote locations around the country, sometimes calling in from numerous countries and multiple time zones if multinational workshop teams are required. I’ve even sat through multinational project HAZOP workshops held over several weeks with the facilitator and scribe in a different country to everyone else and over 50 people listening in (only maybe 10 actually said anything!) So how can this work given it was the exception rather than the rule for 30+ years before 2020?

Please don’t misunderstand me here; the current situation is a “needs must” to ensure completion of safety critical formal reviews and risk assessments to meet project deadlines or make facility changes safely. The online workshops are thus needed now during the pandemic period before project modifications or facility changes are made to understand, minimise and control the hazards and risks identified. However, we should be wary that once this Pandemic period is over that virtual workshops may not move back to being the “less preferred” option although they probably should in my opinion for the numerous draw backs listed below versus face to face review meetings.

What types of workshop reviews does this blog cover?

  • Significant hazard identification studies for people safety, environmental damage or facility impacts
  • Safety in Design (SiD) project and facility assessments - Examples include HAZID, ENVID, HAZOP, LOPA, SIL reviews, Design and Constructability reviews, 3D Model reviews, ALARP/SFAIRP assessment and Bowtie reviews.

What can go wrong in online workshops and how to fix them:

  1. Background noises are very distracting when someone is talking or during group discussions. Try to be in a quiet location and mute yourself when not talking. Also let your family and colleagues know when you are in online workshops and you need them to be quiet or move to a different room. Use headsets rather than your laptop speaker/microphone if sitting in an open office environment.
    In my experience, the most common background noise in workshops, other than talking, is keyboard tapping. The scribe can't help this, but the workshop chair/facilitator should not be afraid to call out and also hit the "mute" button to remove any of the typical noise distractions listed below.Typical background noises heard during online workshops include:
    • Office – general background hum of talking, keyboard tapping, mobile phones/other people on conference calls, machines/printers/photocopiers, building announcements/alarms, etc. 
    • Street, Public Transport and Traffic Noise – when using hands-free or on speaker phone
    • Kids / Family activities sharing same workspace at home
    • Pet distractions (e.g. cat jumping onto the scribes keyboard!), dog barking/yapping and bird/wildlife noises outside
    • TV/Radio/Music
    • Running water/toilets flushing!!! 
  2. A lot of time is lost (a few mins an hour = hours over a multi-day workshop) due to technology/communications issues. Expect at least a few of these issues to happen during your workshops. I have seen all of them recently!
    • Switching share screen between personal desktops and switching control of the online workspace or presentation screen can take 30-60 seconds and may not work every time, so that’s a lot of wasted time waiting for control and the screen to come back. Share screen is required for meeting minutes, moving through drawings, slides and documents, etc. so I suggest the meeting organiser or scribe puts all docs in one online folder location that the team can access at any time and also let one person (e.g. the scribe) open all docs and give screen control to the others as required.
    • Poor internet speeds/limited bandwidth, particularly when all video cameras are turned on – good for the facilitator to see core team during smaller meetings but I suggest cameras are turned off for everyone other than the facilitator most of the time and use a wired Ethernet connection rather than Wi-Fi when available. Also if possible, ask others to limit their use of home internet, video streaming, etc. when you are in workshop meetings at home.
    • All attendees will need the meeting software loaded on their device and may have limited access via mobile/tablet device or web apps. Have a practice run before the workshop meeting to test the meeting software, ensure the scribe can also use it, and ask everyone to download the software prior to joining the meeting. Share alternative conference phone numbers for each country location before the meeting so there is an alternative to use the phone if/when the internet connection fails.
    • Headsets and speakers/microphones may not connect to the meeting software or may not work e.g. Bluetooth connection or low battery. Have a backup headset that connects directly to your device and know how to switch from computer speaker/mic to your headset and vice versa (normally in the meeting software settings).
    • People dropping in and out of the meeting due to local poor internet connection, particularly during poor weather/storms. Note that if the Facilitator or scribe drop off the call then the meeting can’t proceed! See comments above about having a conference call backup available and someone else who can scribe if they need a break (similar to normal face to face meetings).
    • Watch out for team members who go quiet. This typically isn’t managed well in online workshops. Noticing and drawing out the thoughts of "quiet contributors" in face to face workshops is much easier! Attendee fatigue/lack of focus is only natural in long online meeting sessions. I suggest limiting online meetings to 7 hours per day including breaks at least one every 2 hours. In my opinion, long days are not time effective in online workshop meetings and I find the team is more focused and covers the same agenda as a longer day, if days are limited to 7 hours and regular breaks are set and agreed up front. Furthermore, if possible don’t schedule more than 4 days a week for multi-week workshops (common in large projects) which allows the team to refresh once a week and catch up on the “day job”. This also prevents team members jumping on emails, other phone calls, etc. if they know they’ll get time to catch up with those things during the breaks and downtime each day.
  3. Different time zones can dictate the time available for meetings e.g. US vs. Europe, Europe/US vs. Asia-Pac region have a very large time difference. Hence workshop meetings can only be in the mornings or late afternoon/evenings to ensure core team members can all be online at the same time. Hence you should expect a normal 1 or 2-day face to face workshop meeting to be extended over several days to cover the same scope/agenda.
  4. With long meeting workshops and large numbers on the call, there are often clashes with regular weekly meetings for each team member. If these meetings aren’t rearranged, the core team members might drop in and out of the workshop from time to time. This is very hard for the facilitator to notice or manage, particularly with large groups with no video cameras turned on and most people muted! I suggest that a “core team” is specified and the workshop will not run without those people or their delegate when they aren’t there. This is no different in an online workshop but more important to check everyone is in attendance, particularly after break/lunch time. I normally ask that the "core team" switch on there camera for a few minutes after each break so I can see everyone is there before I re-start the workshop. 

All or a combination of these issues results in:

  • less focus of all team members on group discussions
  • less identification of critical issues and thus hazards and safeguards are missed and not recorded = risks not managed!
  • an unfocused team and rambling discussions
  • questions outside of the meeting scope
  • a very quiet team, poor team member engagement, facilitator doing it all on their own
  • overall a longer meeting and more days to cover the same workshop scope
  • ICHEME have a useful webinar on virtual assessments. Have a look at this link.
    ICHEME webinar on virtual risk assessments - Aug 2020

Employ experienced Facilitators and Scribes for online workshops

None of this advice is useful without an experienced facilitator and scribe to lead the meeting to a successful conclusion. Online meetings are not the place for training up the HAZOP leaders of the future or to blood a new recruit into the scribe hot-seat. These are both skilled jobs that need to be at the top of their game to keep online workshop meetings on track.

Prepare your online workshop for success

There are numerous checklists and discussion groups available to set yourself up for success in face to face or online workshops. Here is a free HAZOP prep checklist to get you started:

Download HAZOP prep checklist

 

Need to train your employee's in HAZOP before a review? E-Learning may be an option for you. Trial a module from our HAZOP e-learning course to get a feel for the course.

Try HAZOP E-Learning : Module 2