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Best practices: How to facilitate a virtual workshop?

✨ Let remote collaboration and digital transformation open new doors for stabilization, recovery and future growth. This is the time for any organization to involve people to think together and share ideas, engage and progress collaboratively — even from home.

These are our 26 best practices on how to host your workshop online, and I will take you through it, step by step. These tips are from more than 500 remote collaboration and ideation workshops we have facilitated virtually. These were ideation sessions for large enterprise employees, virtual Design Sprints including startups and mentors. We have experience with co-creation sessions for social impact topics, involving a large, distributed community of people from more than 20 countries thinking together on how to create more inclusive societies.

These online workshops are flexible, and you can use it for almost anything when you want your participants to interact with each other, share ideas, discuss and come to a common conclusion. If you need to bring a group of 3 people, or if you need to bring a group of over a hundred people together and come up with creative solutions or learn through experience, these tips are for you, this is the perfect format.

Let’s jump into it!

So the first thing is — preparation

🎯 Preparation takes around 70% of the work for a successful remote workshop. Most probably you will need to invest more time in it than you would in a personal setting because you will need a more detailed agenda with less room for improvisation.

How to run a remote workshop: preparation and selecting tools

For your preparation, you will need to invite the right stakeholders, select the platforms, involve a co-facilitator if you are more than 15 people joining, draft your agenda and send out invites containing the most important parts of this agenda.

  • START WITH THE WHY. When you start your preparation and drafting your agenda, think backward from the why. What do you want to accomplish by the end of this session? Think of what is the best-case scenario, if everyone leaves energized and ready to combat challenges. What is the positive impact we can achieve together? The more concrete and specific you are when imagining this happy scenario and a successful workshop, the better you can prepare.
  • INVITE THE RIGHT STAKEHOLDERS. Involve and inform stakeholders as early as possible. Inform and invite them for a pre-workshop call where you can start your research. If they cannot make it, interview at least 2–3 people in a short call about what has happened before and how they imagine the target outcome.
  • DO JUST ENOUGH RESEARCH. Ask for background documents if they are available, look at data or analytics. Conduct interviews about participants’ expectations if you want to up your game significantly.
  • HAVE A CO-FACILITATOR above 30 participants (or above 15, depending on your confidence level). A co-facilitator can help you by taking care of the timing, they can manage technology, answer questions and comments in the chat, invite people into breakout rooms or end breakout rooms. Together you can concentrate better. These people can lead discussions in breakout rooms and mentor the teams, too.
  • PLAN WITH BREAKS. These workshops online can take anywhere from 60 minutes to half a day. If you want to hold a one-day workshop remotely, we highly recommend you to split it into 2 half-days with regular breaks in-between after every 1–1,5 hours. Joining a virtual session needs more energy and engagement from the participants. It is always harder to concentrate on a virtual call, so people need time more often for refreshing than they do personally.
  • DETAILED AGENDA. With remote people joining, you will be less likely to improvise. If you don’t have a strongly held structure and detailed agenda, it might just be very disengaging for the participants. Since you will lose the eye-contact with people, you will need to have a more strict timeline knowing when exactly you would like to move forward and which exercise will come at which time. Let’s assume that the workshop is about a creative problem-solving on a specific challenge. On the agenda participants see, there might be just 5 bullet points: 1. Intro, 2. Problem framing 3. Ideation, 4. Evaluation, 5. Prioritized solutions and conclusions. On the other hand, we, facilitators need to have a more detailed agenda with activities planned almost minute by minute with exact timing.
  • PRACTICE, but don’t rehearse. Don’t write out full sentences of what you are going to say. If you still want to do it, watch out. Our written sentences are often longer and more complicated than our spoken ones. It makes it harder for people to listen and keep being engaged. Make it as natural and conversational as you can. Ease it out. Definitely don’t read your sentences up. If you really want to make sure you practiced well, try recording what you are going to say and see how easy it is to follow. Just be confident and it will show :)

Selecting the right tools

You will need 2 types of tools:

Conferencing tools to talk with the participants and see each other through the camera. You will use the conferencing tool to allocate participants into breakout rooms. You can use: Zoom (works great with breakout rooms and built-in polls, whiteboard), Google Hangouts, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Bluejeans, Youtube live, Slack.

Tools for collaboration and ideation: Be-novative, Mural, Miro, Klaxoon, Google slides or Google docs, Zoom built-in whiteboard, Sharpies & blank papers and phone to upload pictures.

  • BE IN TOUCH WITH THE TOOLS’ SUPPORT TEAM. Use the tools support throughout the workshop. Reach out to the support team before the event. Make sure they know about it and are available and talk through the process or tips and best practices to see if they have additional ideas.
  • RUN A TEST SESSION. Run a test with your selected tools before your session. You can ask a colleague, spouse or join maybe from your phone & desktop to see how each activity will go.
  • SIGNUP BEFORE THE EVENT. If you can, ask the participants to sign up or download the tools you will use together during your workshop. It makes life easier.
  • MUTE EVERYONE. This might be really self-explanatory, but I have seen a lot of meetings that started with a loud echo noise and everyone was trying to guess whose laptop is that. Or noise from the background. You just don’t want the distraction. You can encourage everyone though to keep their camera on.
  • USE YOUR ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ MODE. no calls, no email and slack notifications will float in when you share your screen if you click on the computers’ do not disturb mode from the main menu.

How to facilitate your remote workshops?

🧘🏻 The most engaging and efficient workshops are the ones that participants enjoy and feel they learned something new, maybe through a new activity or thinking together with others. Before the workshop, try to get into this positive state of mind. We highly recommend meditating for 5–10 minutes before and imagining how the whole session will be a success. Just recognize happy faces at the end of the event and try to observe what you did well in this imaginary workshop setting. Just stay positive, it is a catchy mindset!

  • ACTIVITIES TO DO IN SMALL GROUPS:

Ideation (Brainstorming), Discussing questions, How Might We — problem framing, Elaborate on an idea, Topic-based Q&A, Share previous experience, Roadmap planning, Creating Customer Journey Maps, Working with canvases

  • ACTIVITIES TO DO IN PAIRS:

Share personal experience, Discuss sketches made alone, 5 Second Tests with prototypes, Critique / Black hat session on a prototype’s usability, 5 Whys: root-cause analysis of a problem

  • ACTIVITIES TO DO INDIVIDUALLY (& DISCUSS IN A GROUP):

Crazy8 prototype sketching, Persona planning, Storyboarding, Planning Future Headlines for Value Hypothesis, Wireframing rapid prototypes

How to facilitate and engage people in a remote workshop
  • SNACKS, COFFEE & DRINKS ON THE SIDE help participants fuel up during the workshop. Encourage them to bring snacks and drinks to their table.
  • USE ICEBREAKERS — Warming people up with social activities and random questions to answer or topics to discuss will create a safe space. Engage participants in voting in a poll for sentences they agree or disagree with and discuss the results. This way people get to know others in the workshop and have them comfortably try their mics. Some facilitators like to use off-topic random facts everyone can share about each other. E.g.: favorite sports they have ever tried, or their most favorite morning routine. Maybe you can create a list of ice breaker activities you can review and select from every time you have a new workshop coming up.
  • MUSIC — We like to use AJ&Smart playlist. It exponentially increases engagement. People can listen to it when they are sketching individually. Instead of working in silence, listening to the same music has a feeling that we are in the same room and increases engagement.
  • USE BREAKOUT ROOMS. If you have more than 4–8 people to join, it’s best to divide people into simultaneous small groups. These people can discuss the task or topic together, just as if they were sitting around a table. The perfect group size is 3–5 people online to make sure everyone gets the chance to speak. You can create these so-called breakout rooms in Zoom and do the small-group activities there. When the activity is over, you will have 60 seconds to wrap and return to the main room. You can actually spend a lot of time in the breakout rooms.
  • VIRTUAL IDEATION. Ask people to join a be-novative ideation challenge at the same time, where our AI virtual facilitator will help you automatically create small groups of people based on who click on the ‘Join’ button at the same time. Every participant will go through stages of sharing ideas using built-in inspirations, evaluation of ideas on impact — feasibility, adding suggestions to the best ones and arriving at the prioritized idea concepts in 30 minutes. Then you can ask people to discuss live the solutions that will solve the selected created problem best according to everyone.
  • SHARE THE URL IN THE CHAT if you use a tool. Clicking on a URL from the chat is always the easiest for most participants.
  • PUT THE TASK ON YOUR SCREEN & SHARE. When you announce a task, share it on your screen while the activity lasts. Include how many minutes participants have to complete the activity.
  • USE A TIMER. Show how much time is left for participants in the exercises. This way they can navigate better to progress well towards their solution and manage their time smarter.
  • INCLUDE STORIES & EXAMPLES. For learning, personal stories have the deepest impact. Always share examples of what is expected at the end of the activity from the participants. Remember the positive target outcome :)
  • ENGAGE EVERYONE. Ask a question or write for everyone or to specific people in the private chat asking if they need any help. Feel free to call random people to show their activity’s outcomes. Plan with regular voting sessions. These interesting polls people really get engaged with easily and opens them up. You can easily ask volunteers or random people to share some thoughts on why they voted for a specific option. Also in the tools you choose, you can always check how many people were actually active and completed the task. Make a spoiler. Say you are curious about the experience of people on this topic and you will ask random people in a few minutes. Let them think of their stories or answers. And in the meanwhile thinking, you are sharing your story. You can also introduce this task before a break, asking people to share their experiences when they return from the break. Leave them some time to feel comfortable speaking up.
  • HELP EACH OTHER OUT — You can actively encourage people to help each other out in the chat if someone has a problem or a question, feel free to ask and even to reply.
  • DEFINE NEXT STEPS — At the end of the workshop conclusions and next steps are crucial. Let participants decide which solutions are the best to execute. Which ones should teams actually try out, prototype or move forward with?
  • ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER — In case of a series of workshops, it is a good idea to ask participants to choose an accountability partner who will regularly ask them what they have done to move forward with the activities and achieve the planned milestones.
  • SUMMARIZE the conclusion or next steps. Restate goals, and show the journey that the group went through to really build something with which they can achieve the target outcome. Show this summary or outcome visually either on bullet points on a slide or on the whiteboard. Send it to participants at the end of the session with a kind thank you note.

☀️ You too can make a difference as long as you keep up and show an example to others.

Resources and further reading or watching:

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