When the virtual out-performs in-person

How can you engage 90 people in an interactive, informal, online discussion about a serious issue? The Futures Team in our department gave it a go and got some surprising results.
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The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) ceased on 8 January 2021.

The PSIN was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work.

The content on this page has been kept for historical purposes and may not be accurate.

See previous PSIN content on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.

The Futures Team in our department recently hosted a virtual café. ‘A virtual what-now?’ you ask. Good question. It’s not a digital simulation of pulling espressos, frothing flat-whites and pouring pour-overs…but rather an experimental online discussion forum to get people thinking. In this case, they were thinking about potential future scenarios (specifically of a post-pandemic world) that could feed into government policies and programs.

The virtual café proved more popular and interactive than the team’s usual face-to-face events. The café attracted more than 90 people and gave everyone the chance to participate via multiple technologies.

Key innovation principles

Want to host your own virtual café? Bear these principles in mind:

  • Balance familiar with unfamiliar to bring people in.
  • Know your technology and tools.
  • Be courageous – give it a go and learn along the way.

Translating physical to virtual

Chun-Yin San and Josh Wilson from the Futures Team said one of the reasons they chose to run the session as a virtual café was to ease the audience into a new format.

‘We took a model that we knew people were accustomed to–s­itting in a room, listening to someone present, doing a few Sli.do activities on phones–and moved it to a virtual environment,’ said Chun-Yin.

Josh also pointed out the seriousness of the subject matter affected their choices. ‘Cafes are where people relax. We wanted to make it a very informal atmosphere where people had the space to breathe while discussing a serious issue like COVID-19. It was a positive experience and narrative.’

They used the tech available to them.

Chun-Yin said it’s important to know your technology platform and its limitations. ‘Use your chosen platform as much as you can to support what you’re trying to do.’

They ran the session through Skype for Business, with Chun-Yin and Josh sharing and discussing PowerPoint slides.

They wanted to make the event as much of a conversation as possible, but found that Skype for Business wasn’t as robust as they needed to take questions or poll the audience. So, they added a conversation loop through the website Sli.do.

‘We introduced Skype’s chat function and Sli.do to allow people to fully engage throughout the session. If we didn’t have these, it could have been chaotic with 90 people trying to talk over the top of each other,’ said Chun-Yin. ‘At the start, we also asked the audience members to turn off their cameras and microphones.’


The virtual café also threw up some challenges.

With Skype for Business, each time a person joins, it chimes. ‘The first 10 minutes was filled with constant chiming which was distracting,’ lamented Chun-Yin. ‘I just had to keep focussed and ignore this while introducing the session.’

Side conversations were both great and off-putting.

‘I really liked that participants were having organic side conversations through the chat function. It showed how engaged they were,’ enthused Chun-Yin. ‘But my fellow facilitators were also making decisions on the fly about facilitation issues via a private messaging function. This was distracting while I was trying to run the session.’ Chun-Yin suggests that facilitators need to work out in advance the least disruptive way to communicate while running the session.

No smoke, no mirrors

The team have been sharing their lessons with others around the department and the public service who want to try similar events.

Josh said part of the trick is that there is no trick. ‘It feels like the Wizard of Oz. People want us to pull the curtain back and see this mad machine and all this other stuff that went on behind the scenes. But it was just us using simple techniques. People expect that it’s more complicated than it is.’

Embracing risk

Josh also said a key part of the virtual café’s success was they had an idea and ran with it.

‘I’m guilty of it, I’m sure everyone is, where you sit there and you’re waiting for someone to push you. People want the template with all the instructions and we have to say “We don’t have it! We just did it!”

‘You have to be courageous and be prepared to fail and learn from the process.’


One thing the team hadn’t expected was a rise in the proportion of people who actually showed up.

‘With our normal events, we expect to have a drop-out rate of around 50% for various reasons. But 70% of the people who accepted the virtual café invitation joined in,’ said Josh.

The online format also meant that state-based colleagues were not at a disadvantage. Echoing lessons learnt by the BizLab Team in remote workshops – if everyone is online, everyone is on a level playing field.

Another positive result was a surge in people joining the department’s Futures Network and wanting to engage with more activities.

The experiment worked better than expected, but only because they gave it a shot.

Turns out you don’t need to be the Wizard of Oz. Much better to be like the Cowardly Lion and learn how to be brave.

Read more

See also

The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.

See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.