sticky notes and pens
PHOTO: Ravi Palwe

Here’s my only joke about facilitation:

Q: What’s the difference between a meeting and a workshop?
A: In a workshop you do exactly the same as in a meeting, but on MUCH bigger pieces of paper.

So, what do you do when there’s no paper involved because everyone is working remotely? Having run many virtual workshops on digital workplace strategy over the years, I think that, done right, they can be more effective than a face to face event. Here’s how to make them zing.

Workshop Groundwork

The make or break of a workshop begins by being clear about the purpose and outcomes. You probably read that and went “yeah, yeah” but I mean it. Talk about the decisions that need be made and who needs to be there so the decisions stick.

It may be tempting to invite other people because there’s no travel involved so extra attendees are 'free.' Resist that temptation — they will detract from the process. Even when everyone is cooperating, there is social pressure to let each person have a say. Imagine that the “cost” of every extra person you invite is an extra 20 minutes of workshop time, then figure out how late you want to stay up.

When people ask “is there an agenda?” what they really mean is “when is the lunch break?” But agendas are also a valuable way of expressing expectations with the main workshop stakeholders. Take time over this. Usually I have a very detailed agenda behind the scenes (I call it my script) where I agree to the purpose and outcome of each step with stakeholders, then a simplified agenda the everyone sees in advance (with lunch in bold).

Related Article: The Evolution of Meetings Has Long-Term Effects

Don’t Let the Tech Be a Pain in the Neck

Put as much effort into your virtual venue as you would when hiring a meeting room. Don’t think that if it is on Zoom or Teams everything will be easy. People are so used to regular online meetings now that bad habits are emerging: these habits will be as distracting as if real-life strangers were allowed to wander through your meeting room, and participants always spoke by mumbling into a trash can.

First, ensure everyone has good audio. Insist on headsets and if necessary, include an audio bridge so that landlines can be used (even cell phone audio with a headset is usually better than voice over data).

Second, avoid any kind of hybrid where some people are in the same room. Insist that each person has their own laptop and space. Don’t let people share a screen, it is poor for both video and audio, and the temptation not to use a headset will be greater.

This leads to the third point: really encourage video. Those non-verbal cues will be essential for the facilitator to ‘read the room,’ and also make it easier to show agreement or dissent without waiting to speak. I get this can be a challenge for those working from home, but if possible when scheduling the meeting, ask people for availability at times when they can use video. Compared to the cost of traveling for a workshop, it may even make sense to rent a co-working space if needed.

Lastly, check that all other tools work OK well ahead of time. For example, if using an online whiteboard, check browser compatibility, firewalls and logins a week in advance.

Related Article: Collaboration Is Not an Outcome

Give Me a Break

A recent Microsoft study showed that remote meetings are more fatiguing. For that reason alone, it makes sense to have more regular breaks, but a second reason is equally important: breakthroughs happen during breaks.

Many times in my workshops the group has hit a knotty problem. We’ve stumbled into a long-running feud between departments. Things may have become heated. Someone has withdrawn and looks tense. A casual doodle has the furious sharpie pen-strokes of a woodpecker on amphetamines.

Then, during the break people get into huddles and start to solve things. They maybe test a solution that they weren’t sure they should share. They process another point of view more calmly. Some quieter contributors get clarity on an issue that was bugging them but which they weren’t able to put into words under pressure.

It’s the same with online breaks — perhaps more so as speaking time is precious — so plan on a maximum of 45 minutes work to the hour, and at most three hours per workshop. Just ask people not to do emails or take calls but to really use that time to take a break.

Longer workshops split over two days have advantages too. If people can add to the Day 1 work asynchronously (e.g. adding notes to Trello), you don’t lose momentum during the gap, but actually gain from the extra time to reflect and improve their decisions. I’m not sure day-long workshops were ever the best format, rather than a side-effect of people having to travel to them.

Related Article: The Collaboration Problem No One's Discussing

Starting the Workshop

Icebreakers may feel contrived, but they add an element of play that helps people relax. My team play a game where we all turn away from camera, then come back miming a sport that the others have to guess.

icebreaker at beginning of workshop

You can also use the icebreaker to get people used to using a new tool. For example, put a pin on a map of a “place you’ve always wanted to go,” or if introducing Trello, get people to seed a vision using product reaction cards.

Related Article: Why Play Is Important for Digital Literacy

Encourage Side Chat 

In workshops there’s a tacit “only one person speaking at a time” norm. But in virtual workshops this is more stilted because the audio is a mono-channel. To compensate, I encourage side chats — people are not only more involved, but more productive too. Nearly every tool has a text messaging ability that can be used for this. While someone is talking, permit others to be active on the chat. It’s a great way to check understanding, add background facts, brainstorm ideas or simply agree (without fumbling for the ‘unmute’ button). Even cracking a joke in a side chat that would be disruptive over audio makes the whole day more enjoyable.

However you use side chats, it means multiple people are contributing in parallel. It also gives quieter people — often the introverts and non-native language speakers — a way to comfortably participate.

Virtual Sticky Notes

No workshop would be complete without sticky notes. The good news here is tools like Trello and Planner are much more useful than their paper equivalent. Trello allows you to @mention people in a note so they get an alert. This encourages others to build on that note rather than writing their own (for all that normal workshops are notionally collaborative, it's common for people to pursue their ideas in isolation).

After initial brainstorming, processing the notes can also be easier too. For example, you can immediately duplicate them all so that two groups can rank them independently or use voting buttons to quickly identify popular ideas. Labels too add sorting metadata, so you can code notes by cost, risk or department and instantly regroup them.

Finally — and this is not to be underestimated — people write far more coherently online than on real paper. I once spent ages trying to figure out why someone had written the sticky-note "Give people badgers." It took me a day before I realized they meant “Give people badges.”

Next Steps

Every workshop should have a formal ending. Don’t run right up to the hour or people will log off early for their next meeting and miss the finale. Instead, plan formal time to:

  • Recap actions.
  • Address parked issues.
  • Agree on deadlines for actions.

My final tip is it is easy to feel like great progress was made during a workshop, but then to never follow up. This seems especially true for virtual workshops, so book a date for a follow-up session maybe one to two weeks after, and keep the momentum going. After all, there’s no paper to transcribe so you can dive straight into the actions.