How to facilitate a successful remote workshop

4 min read
Greg Storey
  •  Apr 1, 2020
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Historically, we’ve gained nuance and perspective into our coworkers and clients’ thoughts, feelings, and actions through working with them shoulder-to-shoulder in specially-designed studios, conference rooms, and even the occasional makeshift office corner. And when we’ve had design thinking workshops, we see these intangible connections become amplified. Through whiteboard, presentations, and dot voting, cross-functional teams bond while co-creating new ideas, making decisions, and aligning on future goals.

But when getting together presents a bit of a challenge, things change. It’s often difficult to replicate that “magic” organically happens collaborating while co-located. At InVision, though, we’ve found it’s a challenge we can overcome. We’ve been a wholly distributed company since our inception, with employees from all over the globe working from their living rooms, bedrooms, home offices, converted garage, etc. Using reliable technology and, more importantly, mechanisms to establish trust as early as possible, we’ve not only run these workshops remotely, but also have recreated a bit of that “magic.”

I’ve facilitated quite a few of these remote workshops in my time here, ranging as small as a group of five to as large as 100. Despite time zone differences and lack of experience with the tools and process for some participants, all of these workshops have concluded with positive outcomes so far (knock on wood). I’ve found that the key to a good remote workshop is creating a space for participants to freely communicate their inner thoughts and feelings. While that may come part and parcel IRL, it takes some planning when workshopping in a virtual setting.

I’ve had several participants ask me to share my process recently, so I thought I’d create this post as a helpful tool to get people collaborating better. Here, the steps I take to facilitating a successful remote workshop:

This article assumes that you have previous experience in facilitating design thinking-based workshops (or sprints). If you’re new to the process, I suggest reading Enterprise Design Sprints by Richard Banfield, even if you’re not working at an enterprise-level company. Also, consider Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products co-authored by Richard, C. Todd Lombardo, and Trace Wax. 

Step 1: Send out invites that communicate the workshop’s value

No matter their length, workshops are meant to be co-creation time with people from different disciplines, backgrounds, and perspectives. The fewer people that show up, the less weight the experience carries for all. And a unique burden remote workshops carry is that they’re very easy to just not show up to. I’ve found the solution to this is prepping the participants about the promised benefits of the workshop early and often.

Start by sending out clear invitations as soon as possible. Not only will it help you avoid potential scheduling conflicts, it will also provide a chance to promote its content and spark interest. Don’t assume the workshop is any attendee’s highest priority: Articulate the positive outcomes that the team will reach when everyone attends, as well as the value their individual participation brings to the group. Be fearless in where and how you promote the event until you have a full workshop. Another consideration is to make sure that every participant has an alternative or stand-in that can add their perspective if they’re not able to attend.

Step 2: Choose (and test) your conferencing tools

Video conferencing is a must-have to run a successful workshop. For this time to be productive and successful, all participants need to see and hear each other. Chat tools should only be used as a last resort (For example, for commenting or posing a question while on mute.) I recommend using Zoom for video and audio sharing, but I realize technology decisions are not always in our control.

I find that if you have problems with both video and audio, find a secondary way to share audio, like having everyone call into the meeting on their cell phone. The video and audio may not always be in perfect sync, but using a workaround like this is better than spending 30 minutes trying to get technology working. The longer the delay, the more likely attendees are going to get distracted to the point that might be hard to bring back into the right headspace. If possible, I’d even recommend doing a test-drive call before the actual workshop to make sure everyone’s videos and microphones are functioning.

Step 3: Pick your collaboration tools

There also needs to be a central tool to generate and share ideas both independently and collaboratively in real time. Many of the activities I use during workshops include divergent ideating, and I want a toolset that is as close to the frictionless experience of a Sharpie and a Post-It Note as possible. There are a few good options in the marketplace, but for me, that tool is InVision Freehand. Even before I worked for the company, I preferred Freehand for its tools and responsiveness at scale over other options. I love its shape-making tools: The keyboard shortcuts make it easy for everyone to create great-looking circles, squares, and rectangles. (I find this is important as drawing/sketching makes most people a bit uneasy, and InVision has done an excellent job designing for this feeling and equalizing this experience for all users).

I also prefer to use Freehand because it has unlimited space that’s easy for people to zoom out, find a free space, zoom back in, and start creating without concern of “bumping” into someone else. I’ve found that having distinct spaces for participants to diverge and converge—intentional spaces for people to bring their ideas together, and individual spaces to generate ideas—is a best practice.

Participants copy and paste this Freehand template for their own workspace during a workshop.

Think about how this works in a real space: When participants are tasked with generating divergent ideas, they are typically sitting at a table with their own space. They can view the work of other participants around them, but the point is that people have room to think. Then when the group converges, everyone typically stands close together in front of a wall or whiteboard. All of the ideas are gathered and clustered into themes or groups for dot voting.

To replicate this, I create boards and arrange them tightly together so that the space around the boards can be used for individual ideation. I try, as much as possible, to keep everyone’s work in the same “room” so that I just have one space to track later, rather than a group of links to different “rooms.” Trust me: This makes things so much easier post workshop.

Step 4: Prep your exercises 

Now, while tools like Freehand make it easy to assemble spaces for you to co-create on the fly, it’s essential for you to set-up the spaces for exercises ahead of time. Not only does it show a level of intent and commitment to set expectations for outcomes you’re hoping to drive, it also shows a level of respect that you have for your participants.

Design thinking (or whatever you prefer to call it) is still new to many people. Help your participants by communicating an idea of the work ahead by making a board for each activity in advance. I like to add a title, brief explanation on the exercise mechanisms and its purpose, as well as a timeframe to be completed.

I’d also consider adding sample content for each exercise. Not only can it ease anxiety around the task at hand, but it also reduces the number of questions you’ll get and helps your workshop from running late. In a remote setting, providing context is always your friend.

An example of the “Brand New Day” storyboarding exercise.

At IBM Design, my colleague Devin O’Bryan went one step further and prepared ways to make all participants feel like royalty. He invested time before his workshop and sketched the profiles of participants from some of our special events. In turn, these participants gave 110% of their effort during their time with him. That’s an example of going above and beyond, but you get the point: Showing gratitude for your participant’s time and energy through thoughtful preparation will increase the value for all.

Step 5: Create a deck to bring everyone together

Our last need is a deck to help get all of the participants in the right mental space and to remind folks why they are there. It should also provide an agenda so that participants have an idea of the schedule of events, including breaks. When you create the schedule for the workshop, remember that it takes longer to get through activities and playbacks when everyone is remote. Also, give people ample break time to stretch, reflect on the previous activities, and get a snack. I’d recommend starting the workshop by walking through the agenda.

A sample welcome deck, rules, and agenda for a multi-day sprint.

Step 6: Set it all up

On the day of the workshop, be sure to build in time on your schedule to check everything just as you would in a real room. Login to all of your applications. Turn off notifications on your computer (So important!) Sign out of anything unrelated to the workshop. Your focus is vital to get everyone participating (and it’s awkward when an SMS message pops up, and everyone can read it.)

Step 7: Welcome your participants

I like to have the video conferencing set-up in “Brady Bunch Mode”(aka gallery mode) in the beginning so that people can see and hear each other as they enter the session. Be sure to welcome everyone as they arrive.

If you have stragglers, try to reach them directly via phone or text message, but do your best to start on time for the sake of everyone else participating. There is likely someone else on the chat who knows the person well and can also help find them— delegate so you can keep your focus on the larger group and the workshop on time.

Once you have everyone on video and in your “room,” go through a round of introductions. If the participants have never met before, invest a little time having each person share their role, their background, and where they are in the world. After introductions, fire up your deck and get everyone aligned on what they are doing and why. Go through the participant rules of engagement and, once again, make sure everyone is aligned. When everyone is settled, share the link to your virtual workshop space.

Step 8: Bring everyone in the “room”

As people come into the virtual workshop space, I find it’s a good idea to give them something to find, so they all have a focal point. An attendance check-list works well for this because most people know what that is and they’ll have something easy to do with the toolset (possibly for the first time). Once everyone has completed this task, spend some time walking participants through the activity boards. You don’t need to go into detail yet; just provide a tour so that everybody gets a lay-of-the-land.

What a workshop “room” looks like, zoomed out.

Step 9: Demonstrate the toolset

Show participants how to move around the virtual space and how to create basic lines and shapes. At this time, I also demonstrate the quick Freehand guide for keystrokes (how to make a circle, square, copy, etc.) so everyone knows how to reference it for later. While you’re doing this, remind everyone that the activities are more about their ideas—divergence and convergence—and that the workshop is not a drawing contest. It can help to explain that rather than being a tool of artistic expression, sketching helps harness the more creative parts of our brain.

If time allows, try an exercise to give everyone a chance to use the tools. My go-to is one I learned from Doug Powell at IBM that communicates the difference between prescribing a solution vs. exploring a user experience:

  • Have everyone go to a blank part of the room and take 30 seconds to draw a vase.
  • Use another 30 seconds to observe the different drawings. It’s highly likely that everyone sketched roughly the same thing, a typical vase shape with a flower or two.
  • Now delete all of the drawings and ask everyone to spend 45 seconds creating an experience for people to enjoy flowers in their home.
  • When the timer hits, ask different folks to present their idea to the rest of the group. Hopefully, you’ll see a wide range of experiences that are familiar to others that will feel like they came from the mind of Dr. Suess.

Now, as you may have realized, this doesn’t just demonstrate the tools—it also helps participants get into a more creative mindset. It shows that when we focus on the user problem or need, we’re more open to generating ideas for experiences that may not yet exist. And that’s how we get divergent thinking. This is precisely the mindset that everyone needs to have to go into the workshop activities.

Step 10: Go off to the races

Before you jump into the workshop, I’d recommend reminding everyone to build off of ideas with the “yes, and…” mentality while providing feedback.

After this point, facilitating a remote workshop begins to feel familiar. Don’t forget to use a timer and make sure that everyone can hear when it starts to chime. Lastly, just as with an in-person experience, be sure that everyone participates. Don’t let anyone get away with sketching, presenting, and providing critical feedback.

Step 11: End the workshop

The great thing about remote workshops is that when it is done, clean-up is a breeze. And if you use Freehand or another cloud-based application, there is no need to walk around the space and take a photo of each board because everything is left in place. That said, it’s worthwhile to look around the workshop space and make in-line notes on the outcome(s). Especially with outcomes that are in the form of storyboards or sketches and not yet appropriately documented. They look like they’ll make sense two days, two weeks from now, but they won’t! Plan to invest the time at the end to make notes or run the risk of not remembering that brilliant idea from Larry in Accounting.

Likely you will want to share the outcomes of the workshop to people who weren’t there. This ability is again where Freehand shines because you can bring people back into the same “space” and give them a tour. If you need to pull together a deck, screenshots are easy enough to take and insert. For thoughts on a post-workshop presentation, I recommend learning more about “playbacks” from IBM Design’s Design Thinking curriculum.