How to make virtual research-engagement workshops work better: Insights from a recent international gender and energy meeting

Written by: Thomas Klug & Marc Jeuland


About the Workshop

Research and policy-maker interactions remain a hallmark of evidence-based decision-making and learning agendas. Yet this new age of COVID-19 and social distancing has created new challenges to this idea, and researchers and policy-makers are being forced to find creative solutions that allow continued collaborating and interacting. Transitioning conferences and workshops to virtual meetings creates opportunities to innovate and engage participants and can drastically reduce the costs and carbon footprint of traditional, in-person meetings. Despite these advantages, virtual meetings require thoughtful and strategic planning to ensure fruitful interaction and engagement during and after the convening. There are many lessons to be learned from experimenting with virtual meeting formats.


The goal of this blog is to share insights and reflections based on a recent virtual workshop experience centered on the gender and energy access nexus. On May 12-13, 2020, the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI), Duke Energy Access Project (EAP), and Women in Environmental Economics for Development (WinEED) Initiative organized a joint workshop on the intersection of gender and energy access. The workshop unfolded over two days and was held fully online, for about 4-5 hours each day, convening nearly 200 researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from 35 countries and living in 10 different time zones. In pre-pandemic times, the workshop had been envisioned as a smaller, in-person gathering at Duke University primarily among researchers affiliated with the Environment for Development (EfD) Network and key invited practitioners and policy-makers. As the reality of the coronavirus pandemic set in, the meeting transitioned to an online platform, which offered the ability to open participation to a wider audience.


Workshop Aims, Recruitment, and Engagement

The goals of this workshop were two-fold. First, we aimed to engage researchers with practitioners and organizations in the energy and gender domains to inform creation of a research agenda grounded in real-world, policy-relevant needs. Given this, we aimed to feature practitioner perspectives prominently in the meeting program. Practitioner recruitment was a targeted effort, and meetings were held with practitioners in advance to determine how to integrate their unique insights into the program. In addition to including a keynote talk from ECOWAS, we organized a panel discussion with practitioners from 60 Decibels, ENERGIA, Ashden, Greenway Appliances, and Energy 4 Impact. A core group of participants (about 60) were invited to participate in smaller break-out group discussions which occurred between Days 1 and 2 of the program and during Day 2. These groups provided an opening for more intimate and direct researcher-practitioner interaction, for reflection and processing of the themes and ideas from the workshop, and for brainstorming on how to fill key research-practice knowledge gaps. Representatives from each breakout group summarized their findings and discussions during the main session on Day 2, creating further opportunity for the audience to comment on these ideas, suggest potential collaborators, and indicate interest in engaging further. A participant from the Canadian bilateral development agency, IDRC, offered critical and real-time feedback on each group's proposed ideas.


Second, we aimed to take stock and engage with existing frameworks, methods, and findings from the energy and gender literature and related domains. To attract participants, we utilized a multi-pronged recruitment strategy that involved advertisement on social media, email newsletters, and word of mouth. We also announced a call for abstracts to allow inclusion of timely research, which led to inclusion of a series of 11, short 5-minute flash talks from researchers studying issues at the intersection of gender and energy. To take stock of existing research, the organizing team prepared a white paper reviewing the state of the energy and gender literature and cataloguing metrics and measurement techniques used in related domains. Participants reviewed this paper in preparation for the meeting, which opened on Day 1 with a summary presentation of our key findings. Two research keynotes (1, 2) by experts in gender and development supplemented this effort and provided broader context and lessons from non-energy domains.


Workshop Planning

Given the new virtual mode of interaction, communicating norms and behaviors to participants ahead of time was a key priority. This included communicating instructions and best practices for using Zoom, preparing guiding questions and instructions for the break-out groups, and offering recommendations for presenters to consider. In the original conception of the workshop, it had been imagined as a two-day event; the decision to shorten this to two half days was made to avoid participants feeling fatigued from remaining at their computers for too long and to accommodate multiple time zones. “Virtual coffee breaks” were scheduled on each day with a timer counting down to indicate when the program would resume. In preparation for the flash talks on Day 2, slides were compiled into a single slide deck beforehand to minimize transition times between presenters and logistical hurdles experienced with screen sharing.

Workshop Execution

During the workshop, the audience engaged via several modes. On Day 1, audience members could submit questions to the Q&A window in Zoom webinars. Audience members also had the ability to upvote questions that they liked. Time was allotted for questions during Q&A sessions following presentations and any questions that were not answered during the session were forwarded to speakers afterwards, with encouragement to them to submit written responses – nearly all took up this opportunity to remain engaged.


The workshop also featured two sets of one-hour break-out group discussions. The first set was organized between Days 1 and 2 of the workshop and consisted of about 6 groups of 6-10 researchers and practitioners organized according to time zone. The second set was organized during the main session on Day 2 (using the break-out rooms functionality in Zoom meetings). These groups were organized somewhat randomly with 1-3 practitioners and 5-7 researchers spread between 6 groups.


Lessons learned

Communications & Logistics: While we encountered few technical glitches or Zoom-related issues during the workshop, it would have been advantageous to practice the audio, video, and screen sharing features with presenters in advance to minimize transition times. In the post-workshop survey (N=95), a few participants (<5) reported technical issues with Zoom that regularly interrupted their sound or video quality and the most commonly reported connectivity issue was limited internet speed or bandwidth. Fifteen participants reported having to rejoin the meeting several times due to connection issues. All participants surveyed reported their experience with Zoom was about as expected or better than expected.


Workshop structure: Participants responded favorably to the structure and pacing of the workshop. Brief Q&A sessions (between 10-20 minutes long) followed most of the presentations or talks, and while many participants believed this time to be sufficient (46%), some (24%) would have preferred more time. One key advantage to receiving written comments and questions was that it allowed us to record and send unanswered questions to presenters to respond to and circulate among participants following the workshop. Many (48%) liked the quantity and length of the flash talks, though 43% would have also preferred fewer, but longer research talks. Given time constraints, there exists an important trade-off between the quantity of talks (exposure to more ideas) and their depth (exposure to fewer ideas). For future virtual meetings, it may also be helpful to have a separate shared document or forum for participants to use and interact given the current limitations of the Zoom chat box. Lastly, participants indicated a slight preference for the content of the Day 2 break-out groups (brainstorming of new research ideas), which was considered to be more engaging, thoughtful, and useful.


Networking & Engagement: Limited participant interaction and networking is probably the most significant drawback of organizing a virtual workshop compared to an in-person meeting. Compared to survey data from our prior workshops, fewer participants reported establishing new connections with policymakers or practitioners (29% stating they formed new connections with researchers, compared to 84% in 2019, and 20% compared to 42% forming new connections with practitioners). In an effort to sustain engagement that extends beyond a one-time workshop, the organizing team is pursuing ways to organize sub-groups of interested researchers and practitioners in ways that allow repeated interaction. Having a well-defined goal (e.g., development of a research strategy to address key identified knowledge gaps, pursuing specific proposal opportunities) may help maintain and build on this momentum, but here also, experimentation and creativity will be required.


Concluding remarks

In conclusion, we hope that this blog will serve as a starting point for greater discussion and brainstorming around organizing successful virtual workshops. We encourage others to share their ideas and insights below, with the goal of enhancing our collective learning. Special thanks to the Environment for Development (EfD) Network, Sida and the Energy Access Project at Duke for sponsoring this event, and for supporting the SETI and WinEED initiatives.