I have a confession.
For a long time, I thought in-person workshops were superior to remote workshops. I would lobby to visit a client at their office and hope to be on a project team with local co-workers. Then 2020 made remote the only option, and, like a lot of people, I had to adapt.
Remote workshops come with their own set of challenges (challenges I wasn’t comfortable with yet), namely: How do you host a workshop when your team is miles apart?
At Clique, this is something we’ve been practicing. A lot of our team is remote. We have offices in Denver, CO and Austin, TX. We have coworkers who live in California, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Florida. We have clients in Indianapolis, Albany, and San Antonio.
As a Strategist, I have participated in remote workshops, and I’ve led them. I’ve tried new things. I’ve seen (and had) a fair share of successes and failures. I’ve listened. I’ve learned.
The goal of any workshop is to facilitate collaboration: to create a space where people can brainstorm ideas, share opinions, and make decisions.
The big difference between the two is a matter of logistics. Remote workshops aren’t lesser than in-person. They’re just different. And—if done well—remote workshops can be an empowering tool rather than a limiting one. They can make the workshop process better.
Remote Workshop Tools
Clique’s Choice: Miro
When we were looking for a tool to use, we wanted to find one with familiar workshop elements—voting, timers, whiteboards—to make onboarding and converting in-person workshops easier.
Miro workspace, Zoomed to show full workspace for our Messaging Strategy Workshop
Miro works great for our team. It comes with templates for quick setup, sticky notes for brainstorming, and a built-in timer for easy time management. It’s also easy to share with clients: we can give them access to a board for a workshop. Afterwards, we export a copy of the workshop (in a pdf) as a reference for the client.
A few tips for Miro:
- Turning off (and on) cursors: When you’re in a workspace, Miro defaults to having everyone’s cursor associated with their name. This is great for collaboration and sharing ideas—you’ll always know who is who. But, it can be distracting if too many people are floating around. You can turn on and off this functionality (in the “settings” drop down).
- Use the timer: There’s a timer tool built right into the platform. Once you activate it, it becomes visible to everyone in the workspace. The presence of a physical countdown helps everyone self-monitor their pace and stops you from having to interrupt with time announcements.
- Default to Sticky Notes: Adding a sticky note is the easiest way to brainstorm ideas and to simply write anything down in the board. The text automatically resizes based on how much you write, so all you need to do is add a sticky note and type.
- Voting & Commenting: Use the voting tool to tally responses and help make group decisions. If you want to encourage leaving feedback during (or after) a workshop or capture an idea without distracting from the larger conversation, you can also use the “comment” tool.
- Saving & Sharing: You can quickly and easily export your workspace as an image, PDF, or Google Drive file. You can also create a “template” from a custom workspace—you can reuse an outline from one workshop for another.
Video Conferencing Tool
Clique’s Choice: Google Meet (formerly “Google Hangouts”)
Being able to see faces in a meeting helps get things done—even more so in workshops. It helps facilitators read the room and participants pay better attention. We use a variety of video tools (depending on need), but the one we use the most often is Google Meet.
Clique Studios team on a company-wide Google Meet call, showing Google Meet Grid View
Google Meet is built into the larger Google Suite, and it syncs to our Google Calendar—making it easy to add a call to a meeting. It’s intuitive and doesn’t require participants to download extra software or applications.
A few tips for Google Meet:
- Use Google Meet Grid View: With this plugin, you can see everyone on the call in little squares, rather than just who is talking at the moment. I’d recommend it for calls of 4+ people.
Share Your Screen: Even if you have a shared collaboration space, it’s helpful to project the space into the video call. That way, when you reference a specific section, comment, or idea, you can direct your participants to look at your screen if they can’t find it themselves. It saves everyone a lot of back-and-forth.
- Turn on Closed Captions: In the bottom toolbar, there’s a Closed Captions (CC) button. Turning this on enables real-time captioning.
- Mute Yourself (and Others) by Default: To limit feedback and other distractions, mute yourself if you’re not talking. All participants also have the power to mute each other. If someone in the meeting is clamoring around (or if there’s a dog barking, kid screaming, siren blaring), hover over their video screen and click the microphone icon to mute them.
- Pivot to Phone for Audio: If you or a participant has a slow internet connection, calling in for audio and muting your computer can help. You can still view and present on your computer, but won’t get cut out of the conversation if your wifi stalls for a second.
- Slack: For chatting throughout the workshop. If anything goes wrong in a workshop, you and your team can communicate and solve problems without interrupting the greater group.
- Google Docs: For note-taking. With a shared document, it’s easy to tag-team note taking and catch every detail and idea that comes up in the workshop.
- Otter: For call transcripts. If you (or your support team) is too busy engaging with the participants to take notes, you’ll have a complete record of what participants said.
Converting a Workshop: From In-Person to Remote
Remote-Friendly Technology & Tools
We just went over our favorite tools to use for remote workshops. But, whatever you and your team decide to use, here’s the specific types of tools to use for a remote workshop:
- Collaboration Tool: To brainstorm, ideate, and collaborate with your team in real-time. Consider what tools you already use in your workshop: do you rely on sticky notes, markers, stickers? Find a platform that lets you easily replace your physical toolset with a digital one.
- Video Tool: To see people’s faces. As a facilitator, it can help you focus, listen, and “read the room.” And as a participant, it helps you feel comfortable with the other participants and, therefore, engage more.
- Notes Tool: For documentation. In workshops, a lot of ideas come up, and even if they’re written down, it’s helpful to know the context, situation, and expanded idea beyond the single word someone jots on a sticky note.
- Chat Tool: For internal communication. In an onsite workshop, it might be easy to step outside or have a one-on-one chat with someone about an idea or an issue. You should have a platform to quickly share a thought with a participant, without disrupting the larger conversation.
More Prep & Planning
When you introduce technology to a workshop, more things can go wrong. You’ll need to take extra time to plan around potential obstacles.
- Make Two Agendas: One for you to share with participants, and one for you to use. The one you share should have the main activities, relative times, bathroom breaks, etc. The agenda for yourself should be very detailed: How many minutes each micro activity will take? What people will need? What will you suggest if something goes wrong?
- Give Yourself Wiggle Room: Remote conversations tend to go longer. In my experience, each activity, on average, takes about 5 more minutes than planned. Add that buffer time to your agenda and also include time to onboard your team to the tools and technology. It’s always better to end a meeting short, then to make your participants feel unnecessary pressure while they’re trying to brainstorm ideas.
- Establish Team Roles: As a facilitator, you’ll be busy guiding discussion—listening, prompting, answering—during the workshop. It’s important to have clear roles for your team (or nominate some participants) to help you keep track of the logistics. We recommend having someone to take notes and someone to keep track of the time. It’ll help you stay focused on the workshop’s goals.
- Have a Plan B: Things will go wrong. For common issues (wifi connection, unexpected noises, trouble getting the technology working for everyone), have back-up plans.
Regular Workshop Rules Still Apply
The approach to remote workshops isn’t that much different than in-person workshops. Here’s a few key principles for facilitating any workshop (remote or in-person).
- Encourage Participation: Great ideas come from great collaboration. It’s important that everyone feels safe in workshops. Before you ask anything of participants, explain the purpose and provide examples. Be clear in your prompts and offer to answer questions at any time.
- Focus on Ideation, Not “Correct” Answers: Sometimes, people come up with ideas that you disagree with or, from experience, you know won’t be a good fit for the project. But remember: the mediator’s job is to encourage ideas and sharing, not to judge them. Remind yourself and your participants that the goal of workshops is often to brainstorm ideas, not to make final, carve-it-in-stone decisions.
- Balance Engagement: For collaboration, it’s important to make sure that no one dominates the conversation. You want to make sure that all opinions, voices, and ideas get their time on the floor. If someone isn’t participating, ask them a direct question. If someone is over-sharing, introduce a timer to the sharing portion (per person).
Common Remote Workshop Obstacles (and How to Overcome Them)
For traditional workshops, you have more control of the workspace—you can make sure it’s the right environment for what you’re asking people to do. With remote workshops, that’s not the case.
Someone might be at home with their kids or at a coffee shop. Since everyone will be on their laptop, they might be distracted by digital things too: chat pings, another project, urgent! emails.
You can’t control everything, but you can try to make suggestions, adjustments, and rules for your participants.
- Remind your participants to find a quiet space and try to eliminate distractions (mute their notifications and close their open tabs) prior to the meeting.
- Schedule 5-min breaks for bathroom, stretches, snack and water refills, etc. (recommended for workshops over an hour).
- Encourage participants to use physical tools to help them stay focused, like sticky notes, a notepad, or even something more tactical (like play doh).
- Turn on your close captions to improve your ability to hear everyone, despite connectivity or environmental distractions.
Varying Experience with Technology
Your participants will have different circumstances when it comes to using technology.
Someone might have a bad internet connection and keep cutting out. Someone might struggle to use their trackpad to navigate the collaboration space. Someone might not be able to figure out how to mute and have construction outside their window.
Accept that there will be issues, big and small. Plan to mitigate them. And embrace the awkward, “Can you hear me now?” exchange that is bound to happen (at least twice).
- Ask your participants if they’ve had trouble with specific equipment in the past—knowing this can help you guess what might be an obstacle during the workshop.
- Onboard your participants to the tool, including an overview of key features, functionality, and common mistakes people can make (you can also send a video demo beforehand).
- Account for “practice time” before beginning an interactive activity so people can become comfortable with the tools and ask questions (usually 5-10 extra minutes).
- As previously mentioned, if a participant is struggling with a poor internet connection, have them call into the meeting with their phone and use their computer to view the workspace and presentation.
Lack of Engagement (or Imbalanced Engagement)
Sometimes it’s hard to start a shared activity without being in a shared space.
I get it. I personally feel more engaged when I’m sitting next to my team rather than watching them through a 13-inch monitor, but people are different. A lot of my team members feel more focused with remote workshops, or even more comfortable sharing their opinion.
Be intentional with how you ask your participants to engage. It will (probably) take more planning and practice than in-person workshops because some people will have to get comfortable with the tools before they get comfortable with themselves.
Remember: Engagement is not only possible, but often more democratic when remote—they can encourage different people to participate or people to participate in different ways.
- Request that everyone—if possible—connects through video, so people can see faces.
- Address people by name, in an inviting way, if they aren’t participating (“Hey [name], I don’t think we’ve heard from you on this yet. Do you have an opinion about [whatever you’re discussing]…”).
- Small groups are a great way to get people to engage—to do these remotely, you can create separate video conference links. Just don’t forget to give the teams a time to rejoin the main link and ask them to mute themselves on the main link (if they keep both open on their computers).
- Instruct participants to use two different windows—making the window with a video small and the collaboration tool bigger. This way, they can actively interact with the board while still seeing people’s faces in the video call.
Remote workshops will take longer (as mentioned a few times prior). There will be a learning curve for participants when you ask them to use a new tool or a new feature in the tool. People will feel the need to reiterate points—for clarity and as proof that they’re engaged. Someone might keep having to refresh their screen due to poor connection.
You’ll have to work harder to manage time and move your participants along when an activity is getting long.
- Assume everything is going to take longer than it would in person (anywhere from 5-10 minutes).
- Assign one of your team members to track the time overages so you always know if you’re going too long on activities.
- Most collaboration tools have a timer built into the platform—by using this, you can monitor time and have your participants self-monitor themselves.
- Introduce chat features as an alternative to one-off ideas for participants to share without disrupting a conversation or derailing it too much.
You can download a pdf version of the checklist at the end of the article
Remote Workshop Checklist
Before the Workshop
- Make two agendas: an overview for your participants (share this one) and a detailed version for yourself (use this as a reference)
- Set up the collaboration tool (ex. Miro) to be ready for the workshop
- Send email to participants with: Objective of workshop, tools you’ll be using, the agenda (specifying general times and any breaks), and a quick list of tips
- Create a document for your team members to take notes
- Ask if your participants have any questions and if they’ve had remote technology issues in the past
- Plan for any issues you foresee happening with your technology or tools (practice with it yourself)
During the Workshop
- State a clear objective for the workshop
- Onboard the team to the tools you’re using—providing tips and answering questions
- Set etiquette, goals, and expectations—establish how you’ll rotate between people talking, what people should do if they have an off-topic idea, etc.
- Review the workshop agenda, and call attention to timing, objectives, and any breaks you’ll have scheduled
- Check in with your participants throughout the workshop, specifically if it seems someone isn’t engaged or is having issues with the technology
- Review immediate next steps in the project timeline
After the Workshop
- Send out a summary email and/or deliverable
- Ask for feedback, corrections, and encourage more conversation around the outcome of the workshop
Different, Not Lesser
The goal of any workshop is to facilitate collaboration: to create a space where people can brainstorm ideas, share opinions, and make decisions.
Remote workshops make that collaboration possible even when your team is miles and miles apart.
Yes, remote workshops come with their own set of challenges (more distractions, longer times, technology struggles), but—in some big ways—they make the process better than in-person workshops:
- Remote workshops are less prohibitive when it comes to including people that might not be in your city, state, or country.
- They force you to pay attention to how the activities are working and how people are interacting.
- They introduce new functionality and possibilities with virtual tools, and allow you to have a more permanent record than a whiteboard in a conference room allows.
- And they let us all wear our most comfy sweatpants.