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Workshop facilitation — going virtual

Dos and don’ts of facilitating an efficient virtual workshop — from a personal account of mistakes.


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Shreya Prem

3 years ago | 7 min read

My work from home began right in the middle of two sprints, giving me just enough time to equip myself with online facilitation tools and methods and go headfirst into a workshop. With little time for a change, I had to stick with the planning and templates I’d made for the in-person workshop.

It surely wasn’t the perfect setup, but it provided me with a starting point that I was familiar with. From there I could experiment and iterate to build a structure best suited for a remote workshop.

The digital space has made me value, even more, the importance of —

  • Empathizing with the participants
  • Being open-minded and flexible
  • Keeping it simple

Keep these 3 principles in mind, while going through each of the steps below.

1. Before anything, get your toolbox ready!

Find the tools that work best for you.

What you need is a collaborative workspace, creative tools, and a channel to communicate. (There are lots of tools out there, and you must find the tools that work best for you.)

1. Collaborative Workspace

You need a space compatible with most mediums (images, videos, text), where the participants can collaborate, work individually, easily add things, preferably vote, and eventually export in the right format.

If you haven’t used a digital collaboration tool before, I can recommend Miro. It provided me with a blank canvas and the right tools to build my workspace, the way I needed.

2. Creative Tools

Miro works brilliantly as a creative tool as well, as long as you can achieve your goal with words/sentences. However, for a design workshop, where you would ideally make quick dirty hand sketches — I find it to be very limited.

Even though it almost feels like you’re working with real post-its on Miro (kudos to them), the pencil tool doesn’t come close. You could try using other digital sketching tools, but remember it is very easy to fall into the trap of early refinement (Ctrl+Z is the biggest enemy of ideation), and also not every participant would have access to these tools.

Ctrl+Z is the biggest enemy of quick ideation.

In my experience, nothing beats a quick hand sketch on a post-it/paper for ideation. To have this go smoothly, you can either ask the participants to prepare paper, post-its, and pens beforehand or send over a workshop package with the essentials (depending on your budget). Allocate an extra 5mins in the plan to allow participants to scan/picture and upload these on Miro.

3. Communication Channel

(Photo by visuals on Unsplash)

A workshop is about way more than just collaborating to get better results. It has a unique energy, liveliness, and togetherness. It is important to recreate that digitally. What you need is a smooth and secure communication channel where you can see each other and share content/screens easily.

The possibility to record your session and split into breakout rooms (a feature on Zoom) are big pluses.

Alright, so you have found your tools, and hopefully, you have learned how to use them.

Keep your team size small

Ideal Team Size.

If you know how hard it is to facilitate a workshop for a large group in person, just imagine how tricky it would be for a virtual workshop. Keep your direct working team size no bigger than 5–6 participants.

In case you have a bigger group, keep it together for the kickoff and sessions that cannot happen in two places at once. Then, split the group into smaller teams for the creative sessions and have one facilitator per team (important). Here you can use breakout rooms for communication, and team spaces on the board.

Create your Masterplan

Think, if this is your first time facilitating a remote workshop, this might be the first time for the participants as well. Pre-plan for foreseen difficulties.

Create your Masterplan

  • Plan for a slightly shorter workday, 6.5/7hours. (We tried a full 8 hours workday, and the end exhausted us.)
  • Create a schedule for the day and break the day into smaller, manageable chunks. Make time your constant and stay true to it.
  • Prepare for a select few activities (2–3) in a day — you don’t want to lose most of your time in introducing new activities and dispersing/gathering participants
  • Keep individual sessions short to avoid participants getting distracted.
  • Provide enough time for breaks! The screen tires you out way more than a physical workshop. (A lesson I learned by not having enough breaks)
  • If you plan to sketch physically, provide additional time for participants to upload their sketches. (Do a test run of this activity yourself and time it)
  • Prepare some icebreakers & energizers, for when the energy seems low.
  • Keep buffer for internet troubles.

Prepare your workspace — ‘your blueprint’

Document/add everything the participants will need on your board —

  • The Agenda and goal for the day.
  • Research material — Jpegs + links to presentations (I always have one board for links)
  • Inspiration material for brainstorming/ideating — to avoid people drifting off to the web
  • Templates for the activities (preferably create digital templates to remove the hassle of scanning)
  • The plan for the week (very important) — participants should know the work and break times so they can prepare their day accordingly (also in case of internet fails, something they can refer to)

You can try to recreate the flow of your workshop on the board which makes it easier to navigate.

Using templates will help you document the activities and also make the outcomes consistent.

Divide your workspace into shared spaces (for group activities) and individual spaces (for any note-taking, explorations, ideations, and all the messy work). This really helps keep the boards clean and manageable.

Provide separate space for shared and individual work.

Once your blueprint is ready, share it with the participants well in advance requesting them to check if they can access it. This will help you avoid delays on the workshop day.

….

All right, the hardest part is over. Now let’s execute!

The Easy wins

These small details can take you a long way when facilitating —

  • Invite the participants 15mins in advance — to avoid the inevitable 10/15mins delay.
  • Have everyone to keep their videos on, so at least it feels like you’re together, but ask to mute audio when necessary.
  • Even during individual work sessions, I recommend staying connected on the call — with audio and video muted — this helps participants know when the time is up and connect back faster.
  • Start off the workshop with a quick intro of the tools, in case some participants are new to them.
  • Have participants pick a post-it color and stick with it throughout — to make it easier to distinguish.
  • To avoid multiple people talking at the same time — Encourage participants to take notes of things they find interesting or questions they might have to bring up later.
  • Document everything — comments, ideas, decisions made — to avoid conflicts.
  • Repeat things to make sure everyone understands everything — Refer them also to where they can find information on the board later.
  • When discussing content from your board, try sharing screens via Miro itself — it’s more legible, easier to follow, and will enable you to take notes simultaneously.
  • When using Miro, lock your boards in place. (I’ve had boards floating around and then having to search for the content. You don’t want that.)

Take Charge!

Establish at the start itself that you are in charge and you may from time to time — interrupt endless discussions, conscious of time; ask to halt/speed up activities when the time runs up; most importantly, take charge of the shared boards.

It might seem too strict, but the last thing you want is people trying to help by moving things around and creating a monster like below. Show them an example and explain to them why this is important.

(The example is only for explaining purposes)

If it seems like too much for one person, you can ask one of your teammates or participants, in prior, to co-facilitate with you.

Be flexible and adaptable

Even while having a strict plan, give space for mistakes. If it seems like something you planned is not working in the virtual environment, be open to iterating spontaneously. You will come across certain hiccups, but being flexible will help you overcome them faster. If it helps, ask the participants to take a break, rethink, iterate, and come back with your fresh proposal.

Be humble

If it is your first facilitating a virtual workshop, own it. People respect honesty over someone trying to act like a pro. Embrace the mistakes you make, they will only add into your pool of learnings. Let the participants know you are in this together, it will also empower them to help you when needed and give you honest feedback.

Lastly…

Gather Feedback

Create a board dedicated just for feedback from the participants — what they liked; what they would like more of; what they would improve; what didn’t work at all? These tips will help you create your structure, but the feedback from your real ‘users’ is what will really help you improve.

Most importantly, there is no ‘one perfect way’ of facilitating a workshop — physical or digital — each project poses different requirements. Follow your process, but adapt your tools, activities, and timings as you go.

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself,” Eleanor Roosevelt.
This article was originally published on medium.

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