Let’s jump right to the point. Obviously our realities have changed over just the past few weeks that have felt like eternity now. We sit at our home offices in pajama bottoms with more ‘presentable’ tops and have virtual meetings more frequently than on our occasional work-from-home days. We and our families are all adjusting to this new reality of work and so is technology to accommodate our needs.
Despite the adjustments we are making to acclimatize to remote/virtual work, the top concern for many in our field of tech remains: to what extent can you replace established physical processes like group workshops that heavily rely on ‘bringing everyone into a room’? And yes, naturally the answer is, you now bring them into a ‘virtual room’. But planning and facilitating virtual workshops may not be as straightforward as, say, getting in the same hangout.
EchoUser, in the past, has worked with various clients on projects requiring them to facilitate learning/ideation/aligning workshops virtually. The nature of our day-to-day work also requires us to collaborate with people across the globe. Along the way, we have collected rich and nuanced learnings and mechanisms that take virtual workshops to the next level.
And since much of the workshop design principles remain the same whether it’s physical or virtual, we want to dive deeper into the challenges of going virtual, and ways to not only mitigate them but use virtual to our advantage. We have outlined below the ways workshops differ when they are planned and facilitated as a virtual event and some practical tips to keep in mind.
What is the same:
Here is where the heavy lifting of workshops happens, whether it’s a physical or virtual workshop. Be user-centered when designing the workshop activities and the journey for participants. As you normally do, start with the bigger objectives and goals and break them down into smaller goals, while thinking about how you might achieve the desired outcome in the most engaging way. Recognize and invite subject matter experts, stakeholders, and people with clout who can participate.
What is different:
Digital collaboration tools
Since the workshop is virtual, you would need a flexible and customizable tool to replace the walls, whiteboards, and other physical tools. Pick from a range of collaborative tools available – Google docs, Figma, Miro, etc. – to plan your activities. The desired outcome of your workshop will help guide the kind of tool you would need.
Activity design and Tech Set up
While you will be armed with customizable and flexible tools that are easily documented, you will be replacing tactical experiences of post-its, voting dots, and even pieces of paper. Some extra effort will go into virtually recreating the energy and enthusiasm you would have had naturally build up in a room. Plan to give your participants all the tools to keep them engaged, enthusiastic and aligned.
- Condense the activities to a few hours and break them down over a few days – unlike physical workshops, virtual workshops don’t offer the luxury of full day workshops with served lunches.
- Structure and build your activities on the chosen digital collaboration tool and stick to it as much as you can.
- Assign a color to each participant that will represent them on the collaboration tool for all activities of the workshop.
- Organize each activity in its own board or page within the tool to avoid confusion. Include instructions for each activity for people to read on their own pace.
- Set up a space for capturing discussions, comments, and ideas where it will be visible to the participants and a space only for yourself if you would like to
- Plan activities that are set up to be done individually that encourages the introvert in the room and then have that inform a group activity
- Build in a balance of inward, quiet thinking time and outward sharing and conversations.
“I typically set my Miro boards up so that each ‘frame’ is an activity. In each frame, I like to have the name of the activity, logistical information (length, description, intended outcome), as well as pre-made “tools” for participants to use (color-coded voting dots, sticky notes, comment bubbles).“ – Conner
“Having folks all type their responses into a platform’s chat feature, or dedicated Slack channel can help record individual thoughts that then foster conversation. Again, the goal here is to keep everyone engaged at some level through consistent questions either to the group or to individuals.” – Mary
Rules of engagement
An advantage of virtual is involving people in different time zones and across the globe,but that requires extra effort of bringing everyone to level ground. Send your participants some helpful primers on what to expect and how to come prepared. You can send them:
- Quick tutorial on how to sign into the conferencing tool you have chosen
- Quick guide on the collaboration tool you have chosen
- List of materials you would like to have them at hand, like pen or paper
- Reading materials you would like them to have read
- A friendly note about the attitude or mindset they can come with-
- Encouraging participation
- Setting a safe space to share thoughts openly towards a common goal
- Some rules like – turn on your ‘do not disturb’, mute yourselves, and turn on your cameras
“Best practice is to send out a guide prior to the session so folks can familiarize themselves with the tools we will use. For the IDEO U courses I teach, we also spend about 10 minutes at the start of our first few sessions sharing a few “pro tips”. I am also conscious to be really explicit when giving instructions. For example, if I’m sending participants into a Zoom breakout, I will tell them what I’m doing, what they will see and what they should do. Inevitably, questions arise, and I need to be prepared to answer them!” – Leslie
“In any workshop, it’s important to have the ‘right people’ in the room. A potential benefit of the remote style is that you could have far more people, maybe to increase buy-in. Whatever you choose, a more intimate group or a larger group, be prepared for the number of people by sending an invitation and asking everyone to RSVP. As the number of people may change how you prepare” – Mary
Technology and contingency plans
Always have a plan B for different parts of your workshop, especially where technology is concerned. That can mean:
- Research and choose the right conferencing tool that everyone has access to.
- Set up in advance all ‘breakout’ rooms (ie. separate links to conference calls participants can log into to do a smaller team activity).
- Have a phone option ready on the conferencing tool for people to call in.
- Have a backup laptop charged (ie. if one decides to update at the last minute).
- Have the activities set up in a backup collaboration tool (ie. if using Google docs or Miro,, have PDFs of those).
- Have a backup conferencing tool ready with links if the planned one doesn’t work.
“I know my internet can be unstable, so I like to call in with my cell phone. This means, even when my camera isn’t working, at least I can talk through.”- Mary
“I try to make sure that I have two computers charged and the apps on my phone just in case… I’ve had to go the phone route before!” – Leslie
Testing the workshop
As you would test any research protocol, test your workshop before the day of the workshop. You can never test enough where technology is concerned.
- Test your agenda and activities with teammates. Schedule a mock workshop with the same setup and tools a few days before the actual workshop. Get feedback on what they think of the prompts, the activities, and pace. At least have them go through your most important activity.
- Similarly, test the technology setup to see if it’s easy to use the tool/platform for your purpose, where people would write their comments/questions, and if it’s easy to sign in to the collaboration tool.
What is the same:
Aim for equal and engaging participation from everyone in a way that will create rich and productive conversations and results, much like a physical workshop. Try to make everyone feel welcomed and that they can contribute effectively. Share and circulate the workshop results as much as you can once it is over.
What is different:
Recreating energy of participation and vulnerability
As a facilitator you want to infuse the room with an energy of excitement and collaboration. Virtual workshops might limit you from using your personality/energy and sometimes the screen might feel like a barrier to interaction and connection.
- Assure and reinforce that the workshop is about working towards a common goal and that everyone should feel comfortable to speak their minds productively. As a facilitator too, check the pulse of the virtual room, be open to questions, concerns, and clarifications, and compensate for glitches in technology.
- Set the expectation for equal participation, that you would be calling on people at random to share and they shouldn’t be suprised by that.
- Get the participants warmed up and ready to work together with a fun ice breaker at the beginning of the session.
- Acknowledge the limitations of tech. There will be some lags, occasional blur, and someone might drop off. Let participants know that might happen and it’s okay – we are all in this together. Allow for more time to explain this within activities.
“I like to kick the workshop off with a review of the purpose and context, and to review the planned activities. Before jumping into any serious content, I like to run an icebreaker. In person, I’d run something that gets people on their feet and talking. This is a challenge to do remotely, so what I do instead, is break people out into separate video calls to work on a simple challenge together. This introduces the theme of collaboration and get everyone familiar with the technologies we will use.” – Conner
Facilitating with more control
Unlike a physical workshop, it will be hard to use your instincts to assess the mood and the energy of the room. It will also be more difficult to nudge and guide people through some activities virtually. Here are some things you can do to lead and guide the workshop effectively:
- Withdraw editing access on the collaboration tool before and after your activities to minimize distractions and keep people aligned. (ie. locking your board on Miro)
- Use a timekeeper and be strategic when allotting time for activities/brainstorming: account for more time than you think they need but communicate less time than you think they need.
- Keep track of the pace of different people or groups. Some people may need a bit more nudging than others.
- Align participants before every activity by briefly communicating what the next activity is and why we are doing it. Build in sharing after every activity as well, to keep fatigue and distractions at bay.
“This little feature [on Miro] that allows users to see where other users’ cursors are; it’s subtle, but tremendously impactful, because it makes visible the center of focus for the group. We can see when Dave is not paying attention, or when Linda is spending too much time on the first phase of the activity. These kinds of non-verbal cues are the first things lost when going remote, if we don’t make intentional plans to support them. This allows me to assign an activity to multiple groups, and follow them remotely, as they work through the directions. This kind of group monitoring is a must-have capability for any workshop facilitation.” – Conner
“Besides setting norms that include ‘active participation,’ have multiple ways for people to interact, just like in person. Sometimes, it’s individual activities and sharing via chat (either to the ‘room’ or privately), creating small group discussions and also being able to call on people as needed.” – Mary
“I always have a ‘parking lot’ and make sure to explain the concept at the workshop kickoff, as a back-pocket tool for documenting ideas that are starting to take the group off-track.” – Conner
Different from a physical workshop, the facilitator has access to their computer at all times. Capturing any important information becomes easier. Since workshop insights rely on the artifacts, show-tell, and any discussions in between, it is a good idea to record in more than one way.
- Record the entire session as soon as you start the workshop. Let everyone know that you have started recording.
- Take screenshots of your participants when they are showing something or holding something up to their cameras.
- Screenshot your activity boards after every activity.
- Make note of important ideas and conversations that would be helpful in the future.
- Assign the role of documentarian in each group so they are responsible to record what they are sharing with everyone else.
“For example, in an in-person workshop, if groups are completing an activity, one of the roles is ‘documentarian’. This means that someone is responsible for documenting and sharing what they come up with. This is the same in a digital version; they just might be sharing a screen shot instead of a picture of post-its!” – Leslie
While we navigate these unchartered territories of today’s realities and wish that it is over soon, virtual meetings and workshops are going to be a norm now. While it takes getting used to, we can take advantage of the benefits: affordability, increased participation, flexibility and much more. As facilitators, we are responsible for infusing the process with energy and enthusiasm that matches the physical experience. Like true innovators, we learn, adapt, and conquer.