Remote Workshops 101

April 19, 2021

Written by Ilyssa Kyu, Senior Design Researcher at Idean Philadelphia
Illustrations by Jimmy Yi, Visual Designer at Idean San Francisco

We’re now a year into the global pandemic and we thought we’d reflect back on how our work has changed over the past year. While our research and design teams have surely found challenges in navigating this new landscape and in adjusting our tried and true ways of working, we’ve also found enjoyable ways of collaborating and engaging with our clients virtually — and even some real benefits to it, as well.

One of the most exciting and fruitful phases of the work we do is getting in a room together with our clients, rolling up our sleeves, asking the hard questions, and co-creating together. Sometimes that looks like moving cards around on a large table to reflect the hierarchy of a landing page, and other times it might be standing around a giant storyboard to sketch out a customer’s journey.

Oftentimes, it’s not the result of an exercise that delivers our team with juicy insights, it’s the in-the-moment follow-up questions or the unstructured conversations in between agenda items on a coffee break that sparks an idea

But that buzzing energy can only be generated when you’re elbow to elbow all in one room — or so we thought.

Now, we won’t pretend remote workshops are better than the being in the room where it happened (Hamilton fans, anyone?). But, we’ve found ourselves quite excited about how we’ve adapted to this new norm of virtual workshops during this shift to remote working, so we wanted to pull together some tips and tricks.

This guide will cover some of our learnings on how we can best prepare and execute collaborative, inspiring remote workshops with clients and project stakeholders — and hope that it can help you plan or inspire new ideas for your next team meeting or brainstorm.

Setting the Table

The key to a successful remote workshop is not only translating workshop activities to a digital environment but the careful planning and preparation required for the technology and humans behind the screens. In a remote setting, it can be much more difficult to tweak, troubleshoot or problem-solve gracefully when things go wrong. To avoid these disruptions in the first place, it’s important to lay the groundwork for a successful session ahead of time.

Here are some tips for planning and preparation before your session:

Engage your Clients or Stakeholders

Ensure you’re set up for success by asking your clients or stakeholders to help:

  • Learn more about participants beforehand
  • Select workshop tools they are comfortable with
  • Assign their team roles to support your team during the session

Be Mindful That Time Moves Differently in Remote Setting

While in-person meetings and workshops are powered by collective energy and unlimited coffee and snacks, it’s easier to tire quickly in virtual meetings. Here are some tips to keep in mind to get what you need:

  • Multiple shorter workshops are better than one full day workshop.
  • If you can, schedule small working sessions over several mornings to capture the best energy.
  • Narrow down key goals and priorities, considering you will be working with more limited time in shorter sessions.
  • Ensure you build in time for troubleshooting, tutorials and/or instructions, and settling into an activity.

Consider Your Group Activities

Smaller group activities and pairing participants is often critical in a workshop. While these remain critical to the success of our remote workshops and we’re able to utilize breakout rooms on our video conferencing tools, we’ve learned the following over the past year:

  • As you plan your agenda, be mindful of the frequency of breaking up and coming back together. Sometimes the experience of going back and forth between the main room and breakout rooms can feel clunky or time consuming.
  • More time in one place is more fruitful than lots of back and forth, whether it’s breakout rooms or in the main room.
  • For some activities, working through them on an individual or whole group level can be more productive than smaller breakout rooms.

Consider your audience, what you’re trying to accomplish and the other exercises you have planned when making the decision on how to structure each activity.

Be mindful of the time it takes to transition and the flow of the agenda items to ensure a smooth experience

Take Advantage of a Remote Environment

Yes, some activities can feel less organic and more difficult in a remote setting, like sketching or even just getting settled into a group. But there are also advantages to working in a digital environment:

  • Utilizing the robust collaborative tools available. Our team uses an online whiteboarding tool called Miro. Be sure to consider what tools are available and suitable to your activities when planning how you’re going to approach activities in an engaging and visual way.
  • We’re saving time and resources not having to physically create anything.
  • We’re able to duplicate and update materials for multiple groups during each activity.

It’s easy to make tweaks to the approach or materials for each activity, either after feedback during an internal run-through or even on the fly during the workshop if we have to pivot.

Here are some advantages specific to using online whiteboarding tools:

  • Participants can drag and drop imagery from a quick Google search and more fully communicate their vision.
  • Our team can prepare pieces of content or visuals in advance, specific to their project, where the participants can express their ideas in ways that would not be possible using a more limited set of pre-printed materials in an in-person workshop.
  • Many of these tools have a built-in suite of visuals (i.e. icons, artwork, shapes) making it easy for anybody to express their ideas visually without requiring creative skills.

Prepare Participants in Advance

it’s essential your participants are acquainted ahead of time so you can spend that valuable time on what matters during the workshop. Here are some ways you can prepare:

  • Training Sessions. Schedule a tech training session in advance to walk through the basics, allow participants to play around in the tool and ask questions.
  • Homework Assignments. Send along pre-workshop activities before the workshop. At minimum, we want them interacting with the tool. Ideally, we include prompts of value so the output of this activity can be shared or built upon during the group session—and so they actually feel obligated to complete it.

Plan a Dress Rehearsal

To ensure a smooth experience for stakeholders and facilitators, make sure you plan for a thorough review of materials to catch any issues and make any necessary tweaks. Here’s what we suggest:

  • Plan for 1-2 dry runs with colleagues on your internal team for a fresh set of eyes.
  • Talk through your slides and have your colleagues test your activities. Yes, actually complete the tasks at hand in the tools you plan to use.

Plan for Things To Go Wrong

Let’s face it—things go wrong. Here are some suggestions on how to plan for when things don’t go according to plan:

  • Discuss any and all scenarios of what could go not according to plan.
  • Put back-up plans in place in the event you need to pivot.
  • Assign roles among your team members related to tech support and activity support to address any issues as they arise.

Keep in mind, you don’t need a sledgehammer to push a pin into a wall. We’ve discovered that the learning curve can be steep with our favorite collaborative digital tools, like Miro.

Consider what your audience is comfortable with and what is necessary to achieve your goals

At the core of our workshops, the goal is to promote collaboration, engagement and creativity. If the tools are getting in the way of that, even ones we love, they aren’t worth using.

During the Workshop

Keeping participants engaged for lengthy periods of time is an art and even more so when you’re facilitating in a virtual environment.

Keep in mind that many of your participants like to spend a lot of their day on screens, and even though you may have planned the best ever and most engaging workshop, it’s still important to acknowledge the inherent challenges of being on camera and engaged virtually for an extended period of time. It can be exhausting for many.

Below are some guiding insights we’ve applied to our own facilitation:

Engage People Early and Often

This can be harder to do in a remote setting so it’s important to have some tools in your back pocket. Too much content and explaining up front feels like a lecture in a remote setting.

Find ways to get participants interacting with the content right away—once you get somebody to speak once, the more likely you’ll hear from them again.

Call on participants by name to ensure they feel welcome to speak up and ready to contribute at any moment

Here are some ideas:

  • Ice Breaker Questions. We can approach this age old technique in new and fun ways using our digital tools. For example, have them share an image or emoji in response to a question unrelated to the project in an online whiteboarding tool (we use Miro), like their favorite ice cream flavor or quarantine guilty pleasure.
  • Interactive Online Meeting Tools. We use one called Mentimeter to engage our audience and it allows us to create and see results of live polls, quizzes, and word clouds within seconds. Pose a ridiculous, unrelated question and watch the room light up as the results file in.

Level the Playing Field

Let’s face it. It’s easier to guide and balance conversations when you can “read the Zoom” during in-person workshops. Take advantage of the features and functionality of your digital tools to control the room, guide dialogue, and facilitate input when and how you want it.

Is there somebody not leaving space for others to contribute?

You have the power to quiet the loudest voice(s) in the room — literally

Just be sure to set the expectation that you will use these tools in this way ahead of time so nobody feels like they’re being singled out. Here are some examples:

  • Mute the Mics. If you’re hearing input from the same participants, mute all microphones and call on specific people you’d like to hear from more.
  • Set Time Limits. Display a countdown clock or take a cue from the Oscars and play “get off the stage” music.

Use Humor & Keep it Light

Don’t act too serious or you’ll lose your audience quickly. It’s important to acknowledge that remote meetings and workshops are a bit awkward and to laugh about it in order to get your participants to relax.

Don’t be afraid to joke around or get weird and silly with activities

It invites your participants to do the same, lightens the mood and pushes participants outside of their comfort zone.

Get creative! Is there a theme that has emerged from the project that you can lean into? For example, one of our teams gathered that a workshop experience was going to be an intense experience for a client, so here’s what they did:

  • Developed an idea to create a roller-coaster themed goodie bag.
  • Goodie bags were sent to participants by mail in advance and unveiled together at the start of the workshop.
  • Each goodie bag included: tickets, hats, and other roller coaster themed tchotchkes.
  • Idea was that they could acknowledge it was going to be an intense experience up front, mentally prepare for what was to come and take a group roller coaster image together to get silly (and relax) right away.

Be Mindful of the Flow

One key to the success of a workshop is setting realistic expectations around what your audience can handle to ensure your audience stays engaged. Here are some tips:

  • Mix It Up. Include a mix of light-touch and in-depth exercises to give participants mental breaks after more involved activities.
  • Know Your Audience. If you need to, reach out to your client in advance to gauge what the right approach may be for each day, so you can organize the agenda appropriately for each session. Not morning folks? Start with something light. Eager to jump in? Go big!

Keep in mind, it’s more difficult to pivot on the fly in a remote setting, so keep simple back-up options on hand in case you experience technical difficulties. You can keep the flow going by planning back-up discussion prompts or simple activities to fill the gaps.

Breaks Are More Important Than Ever

It is always essential to build in breaks to avoid disruptions and keep participants engaged. It is even more key for remote workshops, as we’re moving our bodies less and staring at a screen for long stretches.

Here are some things you can keep in mind:

  • Consider Accessibility. It’s important to reach out to the client in advance to ask if there are any specific considerations for the participants that we should be aware of. You may need to strategically schedule breaks to accommodate participants’ needs.
  • Take Care of Yourself. Breaks are important for facilitators too. Not only might you need the time to check in as a team to make tweaks, but it’s also okay for you to take care of yourself and give yourself time to recharge.
  • Don’t Lose Your Audience. Be mindful of when you mention a break. You don’t want to do this right before an exercise or sharing session or else you might lose your audience before they’ve been dismissed.

After the Workshop

Working in a digital environment for remote workshops makes it really easy to digitize and deliver the outputs of a workshop for participants and stakeholders. Additionally, it allows us to keep various communication channels open after the workshop in case participants continue to have more ideas.

We hope this guide to remote workshops has been helpful for you, whether that’s planning your next team meeting, brainstorming session, or workshop—and helps you plan engaging sessions beyond the current moment we’re in, especially as we shift to a more remote work environment across industries.

Senior Design Researcher

Ilyssa Kyu

Ilyssa loves to talk to customers and stakeholders to hear their stories, lead co-design workshops that empower clients to advocate for their users, and solve complex challenges through research and sometimes unconventional approaches.