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21st Apr 2020

Running Workshops in the Virtual World

There’s no right or wrong answer on how best to run creative workshops virtually, but we wanted to share our perspective and learnings. Here’s a look inside a conversation as we planned for one of our recent client workshops…

Facing this new ‘WFH’ reality, we’ve heard it from our own team as well as from our clients about potential challenges of virtual workshops: How do we make workshops work online? More importantly, do we lose anything by conducting workshops virtually versus in-person? Does it affect our creativity or our ability to collaborate and build on each other’s ideas? How do we make sure that they are just as or more effective?

When our friends imagine what we do on a day-to-day basis, what comes to mind is me scribbling ideas on post-its and adding it to a white board already filled with more post-its. Yes, that’s kind of true, but it takes a process to get there. We run workshops with dozens or more people to get their input for new ideas and to build them into actual concepts for launch.  As a consultant, we provide the foundation and stimulus to help us and others get to those BIG ideas and we rely heavily on in-person workshops to do so.

Mary Wong  10:39 AM

Hiya! I’m planning an ideation workshop for next week and wanted to get some input and any advice or feedback you’ve received from your recent virtual workshops. We’re expecting 12 participants and I want to make it all run smoothly… especially now that we’re doing it online. Thoughts?


John  10:41 AM

Hi Mary! Of course! I've been speaking to a few clients about this recently and their first worry is always around creativity. Can participants be as creative virtually as they would be in a face-to-face workshop?


Daisy  10:41 AM

I've heard similar challenges. People are nervous about using new technology for the first time, or being able to interact and collaborate with each other online in the same way you can in person.


John  10:42 AM

I have quite a strong view on the ‘creativity worry’ my experience, you can get the same or even more virtually as face-to-face workshops are usually (and accidentally) set-up for extroverts! The collaborators who love to grab a bunch of post-its and space hop around the room. 

Often overlooked are the introverts, so understanding cognitive diversity (different ways people think) is really important in any workshop. Doing ideation online I’ve found actually offers introverts much more time and space to listen, reflect and think. As a result, I think you get more output from a wider  spectrum of participants, rather than relying on the extroverts to take the lead.


Mary Wong  10:43 AM

That’s a good point. Any tips around making sure everyone is able to participate…including the introverts? 


Daisy  10:44 AM

You have to actively call out individuals to share and speak otherwise it can become a bit of a talking shop. (The MUTE ALL button is the facilitators best friend ) 


John  10:45 AM

Totally agree, and my advice would be to get a sense of how participants like to work before you start the workshop. That way you can create the right discussion guide. For example, send out a simple survey before the session asking participants - ‘Do you talk to think’ or ‘think to talk’...


Daisy  10:46 AM

The great thing about the virtual space is that it almost democratises the group. It humanises, which is awesome. You suddenly get an insight into people's lives and it feels more personal.


John  10:46 AM

Yeah, it creates a level playing field which removes seniority and hierarchy, making it easier for people to speak up!


Daisy  10:47 AM

Like last week I was chatting to a client and they suddenly had to run away as a child had stuck a cocktail umbrella up their nose.


No damage done, but it was amazing to reset the conversation.


Suddenly we were both human beings living through a weird situation. 


John  10:47 AM

Ha, brilliant!


Mary Wong  10:48 AM

Would love to have seen that - glad no one was hurt! 


Back to what you said before though, John - I’ve found it easier to get engagement now at all levels. I suppose it’s easier to free up time right now. And based on feedback I’ve heard is that it gets lonely working at home (I totally get it) and it’s an opportunity to interact with colleagues and other people


John  10:49 AM

It's a good point - it's much easier to find time in diaries (especially for senior stakeholders!)


Mary Wong  10:49 AM

Although having a full room is great... one of my worries is making sure everyone stays engaged, especially when you’re on video conference for 4 hours….


John  10:50 AM

Definitely, sitting on Zoom for hours on end (even when participating in an ideation workshop) is tiring and less dynamic than being there in person. I'd give plenty of breaks to participants so they can relax and recharge!


Daisy  10:51 AM

Agreed - virtual workshops take more planning and preparation from experience and energy to facilitate. You’ll need lots of breaks - every 45 minutes to stand and stretch works well. There’s also an opportunity to get creative with energizers to keep the energy flowing. Also, don’t be afraid of going old school. I love getting participants to use drawings with pen and paper to tell stories and then hold them up to their webcam.


John  10:52 AM

Yes! Don't let the fact you're doing this virtually stop you from the tried and tested creative exercises 


Daisy  10:52 AM

Completely...and then there's the platform. Have you had any thoughts about what you want to use?


Mary Wong  10:53 AM

Well I’ve been using Mural internally, which is a great tool to collaborate with the team. I’ve also used it for some meetings with clients and they’ve said it’s been pretty user friendly. It’s nice to have everything in one place and great for building on each other’s ideas, it makes it feel like you’re in a room actually working together - I’d use it even when we’re back in the office! 


Have you been using it for your workshops as well?


I’d like to keep it more interactive and less slides-based.


Daisy  10:54 AM

Totally agree! Death by powerpoint is death by powerpoint. Whether you're in the room or in your jammies at home.


I love Mural. It's just like a giant whiteboard that you can stick things to. And I think it's a reassuring crossover technology in that it mirrors real world behaviour - i.e. sticky notes on a wall. I've had some great feedback from participants in the last fortnight


And I LOVE the voting feature!


John  10:56 AM

Death by PPT is never good and definitely make things as interactive as possible but don't ignore the importance of good stimulus. 


Get creative in how you present, but just make sure you’re clear on how you want them to use it.


Daisy  10:56 AM

What he said...there's also something about the type of creative exercises you use.


Whilst it's great doing things realtime, virtual sessions do allow for people to leave the space and reflect and then come back


Zoom is great for that - it has breakout room functionality that means you can put people in groups and then bring them back together


Mary Wong  10:58 AM

Yes - good call! I’ve included some break-out group activities, thought it would be a more effective way to have discussions in smaller groups


John  10:58 AM

Break-out groups are really important, but I would say it's super vital to have multiple facilitators to guide the groups as well


Daisy  10:59 AM

More facilitators than you'd plan for in an IRL session


John  10:59 AM

Definitely! I think one of the biggest changes (virtual vs. face-to-face) is the facilitation


Mary Wong  10:59 AM

Yes, I’ve got Rob and Katie joining me, which will be helpful


John  11:00 AM

Good stuff!


Mary Wong  11:01 AM

Any tips around facilitation…and maybe prepping for any technical difficulties (that’s my biggest worry - some of this technology might be new to the participants)


John  11:01 AM

I think Daisy has created a bunch of facilitation rules and guidelines for the use of the technology


Daisy  11:02 AM

Haha, that would be me! I also incorporate upfront icebreakers that lets everyone try the tech out.


@Mary Wong - you’re right. Whilst all this tech is exciting, some workshop attendees are still going to feel uncomfortable. Be prepared for some people to find the new technology overwhelming. And that's absolutely fine! Make sure you give them time and space and support in the session to become a bit more familiar. Or assign a facilitator to work with their group and guide them a bit more


Mary Wong  11:03 AM

Ooooh...please send those my way! Yep - Rob’s been assigned the IT specialist role


John  11:03 AM

Quickly coming back to the facilitation rules - one small tip - I read somewhere that 90% of people multitask when they're on video calls. As the facilitator you'll need to ask for everyone's undivided attention but you can go even further and ask each participant to talk through the tabs they're closing down on the computer and how it feels...


Daisy  11:04 AM

It also helps with the speed of the connection


John  11:04 AM

It's also quite fun to spot which participants are secretly working on other stuff!


Daisy  11:04 AM

hahahah so true!


Mary Wong  11:04 AM

you can always see those whose eyes are darting around looking at other tabs and emails!


That’s true — any thoughts on the duration? Could we do ideation a little differently? I’ve also thought about having more, but shorter sessions or even having an ‘ideation week’.


Daisy  11:06 AM

I've been running longer sessions and they work, you just need to plan breaks and energisers. It’s all about planning - plan, plan, plan and plan again. Make sure participants have time to complete activities, but just enough to keep pace and momentum.


Shorter sessions are great but be prepared to be really focused on one platform, or idea, or topic...And make them more fast paced. The only caveat is that with less time, you need to make sure everyone is comfortable with the tech in advance.


Also, just generally when facilitating the exercises, you need to be suuuuuuuuper clear with your instructions. Be really clear about what you're asking people to do, broken down step by step, and give them strict timeframes to follow - similar to being F2F, but just a bit more strict


John  11:08 AM

Shorter sessions often require more up-front pre-reads. You don't want to be spending lots of time taking the clients through deck after deck, so anything you can send in advance will mean you can get into exercises quicker


Yeah, a good brief is really really important and like in any workshop, should be written down so participants can keep coming back to it - on slides, in your Mural, in the chat function


Daisy  11:09 AM

But people are potentially moving between platforms (e.g. screenshare and Mural) so you need to be verbal as well as visual


John  11:10 AM

you don't want anything lost in translation (which can be easier virtually) and again why multiple facilitators are important to help manage questions as well as any tech glitches on the side. 


You’ll also need to be strict on managing presenting back and group discussions (i.e. one person speaking at a time). It feels really counter-intuitive but ask for feedback on an individual by individual basis 


Mary Wong  11:11 AM

Yes...I’ve done 'hands-up if you have something to say' on some client sessions, even if it’s just a small group... setting those rules of engagement upfront is always helpful


John  11:10 AM

Facilitating online is a bit jarring at first, even for the participants, but it can still be fun, dynamic and creative


Mary Wong  11:12 AM

It does take time getting used to it, but with the tools we have, it feels just as interactive and collaborative. We’re able to mimic many of the things we do in-person like the whiteboard and post-its, breakout groups, etc. I’ve even played some music while participants work to keep the creativity and energy flowing. 


Things like Mural, as I said, I would use on a daily basis and it’s a great way to see how much you’ve accomplished over the workshop or even a project - everything’s there and captured!


Daisy  11:14 AM

Agreed - you can totally still be fun and dynamic virtually! I just think as the lead facilitator you have to take a bit more of "parent role" to ensure everything works and everyone gets a chance to contribute


John  11:15 AM

I was chatting to a client the other day and they reckon they'll be doing a lot more ideation virtually once this is all over


Daisy  11:15 AM

There's a real opportunity with all of this change to flex the way we've done things and take a leap. It's exciting. Just don't forget that you're on camera


John  11:16 AM

And make sure the bed is made behind you


We’ve been keeping a log of hilarious GI on-camera incidents!


Mary Wong  11:17 AM

Great - thanks for the pointers! Think there’s more prep to do than usual and a couple new challenges with tech, etc. to think about, but the virtual world really doesn’t take away from the the output


John  11:17 AM

Not at all, it's strangely liberating! Good luck and let us know if you need anything!


Daisy  11:18 AM

Totes! Good luck Mary. Share your Canvas when it's built. I'd love to see it!


Mary Wong  11:18 AM

Thank you both!



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