Despite Theresa and Line’s experience, they faced as steep a learning curve as anyone else when it came to the sudden shift to fully remote workshops.
Theresa and Line stopped by for a ButterMixer to share the virtual workshop challenges they’ve experienced and actionable advice for how to combat them with clever workshop design.
We’ve recapped their advice in this helpful guide. Enjoy! 🙌
A workshop is a vulnerable place.
People are expressing ideas they’ve never said out loud before. They’re talking before they’ve fully developed their thoughts. They’re coming up with solutions on the fly. Nobody has any of the answers yet.
As the workshop facilitator, it’s extremely important that you make everyone feel safe and willing to share.
That psychological safety comes out of thoughtful workshop design.
In this post, we’ll share our top tips for getting more participant engagement thanks to thoughtful workshop design.
But first: Three big remote workshop challenges
Before we get into things, it helps to clarify what problems we’re trying to solve when it comes to designing remote workshops.
Since we shifted to remote workshops, these have been our three biggest challenges:
- Silence - It’s easier for participants to disengage remotely, so the stakes are even higher for you as a facilitator. It’s also much harder to feel the energy in the room or what “type” of silence it is.
- Zoom fatigue is real - People are tired of virtual workshops at this point. So you have Zoom fatigue working against you even before the workshop starts.
- Awkwardness is intensified - Everything is intensified in a virtual setting. Silence feels louder. Awkward jokes are more awkward. Innocent comments can be perceived more harshly. And compared to how you’d feel standing in front of a crowd, you can feel very alone as the speaker, staring into a tiny camera.
But worry not! Here’s what you can do to kick these challenges to the curb.
📒 RELATED READING: 11 ways to get more facilitation clients
1. Preparing the workshop is half the work
There’s a famous quote popularized by Woodrow Wilson:
“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
To paraphrase: it’s easy to talk a lot, but it takes lots of preparation to say something succinctly.
Workshop preparation is even more important digitally than physically. You can’t wing things or improvise as easily online. You can’t feel the temperature of the room as easily either (although Butter definitely helps with this!).
Roughly 50% of the success of your workshop relies on the work you put in and the reflections you make before the workshop even begins.
When you’re preparing your workshop, focus on answering these questions:
- What is the aim of the workshop?
- What elements should I use?
- How will I engage my participants?
- What could go wrong, and how can I prevent it from happening?
⚙️ Tech check: Every time we host a workshop, we always schedule a tech check with a calendar invite to make sure we don’t have any tech hiccups during the live workshop.
2. Keep it short and kill your darlings
Don’t try to carbon copy your physical workshops into a virtual setting. It’s different, it won’t work, and you need to change your ways.
We’ve learned this the hard way. In-person, we had no problem running five-hour workshops. But there would be time for lunch, coffee breaks, and networking. People were energized by each other.
But when we tried to copy and paste the same format into our virtual workshops, it just didn’t work.
Our advice: keep it short!
When planning remote workshops, it’s better to split your content into several smaller workshops rather than one long workshop.
Each workshop should have a clear aim, theme, and format to keep things novel and productive.
⏰ Good ideas take time: Developing a product or service needs some reflection time. Running multiple short workshops gives new ideas time to breathe.
3. Set the scene!
Setting expectations builds your credibility. Participants will never leave disappointed if they know what to expect.
Your workshops will be 10 times as engaging if people feel like there’s a structure, an agenda, and a purpose.
You have several opportunities to set expectations before, during, and after your workshop:
Before your workshop - Send a Loom video to your participants to tell them what’s going to happen during the workshop and that you hope they’ll come with good energy. Include the workshop agenda in your email too. Send them an invite with the Butter Google Calendar integration. All of these mechanisms help tune the participant’s mind to what they need to focus on.
Right before your workshop - Use Butter’s Waiting Room to set the tone for your workshop with music and a fun image or GIF.
During your workshop - Start by stating what’s going to happen today. Tell them you’ll be recording the session and that everything will be documented so they can be fully present.
After your workshop - Send out the workshop recording, along with a thorough debrief of everything you covered. Miro boards are especially helpful for documenting everyone’s learnings.
4. House rules = safety
By setting clear house rules at the start of a workshop, you create trust and psychological safety, which helps build better remote connections.
If you don’t specify how to participate, your participants will be filled with uncertainty.
“Should I raise my hand on camera? Should I raise my hand with the button? Should I ask questions in the comments? When will they be picked up?”
Help your participants understand the universe you’re trying to create.
Can they just unmute and say something? Or will there be dedicated time for people to speak?
In our ButterMixer, for example, we made it extremely clear how and when we wanted input:
- We asked get-to-know-you questions via polls
- We told people to ask questions using the Queue button
- When presenting, we kept pace and didn’t stop to ask for questions
- We occasionally asked for input in the chat
- We asked people to self-reflect using a Miro board
- We asked for reactions to make sure they were following us
- We left sufficient time for Q&A at the end
- We answered questions that popped up in the chat
By making it explicit how to participate, people will be far more likely to engage!
5. Do more, listen less
Workshops are all about engaging people with interactive elements.
When planning your workshop, plan how you’re going to use all the functions that the virtual platform allows for. Plan when you’re going to use each element in advance, and explicitly ask for it when the time comes.
Don’t put the burden on your participants by making one blanket statement about asking questions at any time.
Tip: Using Butter’s Session Planner, you can create an agenda in advance and set up activities and tools for each agenda block. Once you’re running the session, you can easily access each tool from the agenda.
Including interactive activities is especially important at the start of a workshop, as the first minutes set a tone for the rest of the workshop.
You can also set a particular atmosphere by choosing the right activities at the right time.
For example, if you want to create a fun, playful atmosphere to encourage open sharing and team bonding, play fun music or ask people to drop a silly GIF in the chat.
But if you want to create a more concentrated, productive atmosphere, you can use tools like timers and Miro boards, or choose soothing music instead.
6. What’s your workshop rhythm?
On that note, you have to create and break the rhythm of your workshop.
At a great concert, an artist mixes in a variety of high-energy songs and slower songs. They also throw in a few new songs in between your old favorites. They use ebbs and flows to keep you engaged and on your toes.
When giving a workshop, including a variety of formats helps create momentum and keep energy flowing.
Have participants shift back and forth between listening and participating. Shift between giving a presentation, having a Q&A, doing group work, and taking breaks.
Even if you have to spend a long time presenting, you can also create energy by changing who’s speaking. When the two of us host workshops, we switch who’s speaking from point to point—like a TV broadcast switching between hosts or switching locations.
🤫 Silence is your friend: Silence is an underused method to break the rhythm. When we started our Miro activity during the ButterMixer, we asked people to take a minute to do nothing and sit in silence before answering the prompt.
You can also use silence to close a workshop down. Ask people what they got out of the workshop, but give them a minute to reflect in silence before answering.
7. The human brain LOVES breaks!
If you don’t build breaks into your workshops, your participants will make their own breaks whenever they feel like it.
👍 Rule of thumb: Don’t go for more than 45 minutes without a break. The human brain can only concentrate for so long. We usually give 5-10 minute breaks (unless it’s lunchtime).
Encourage people to stand up, stretch, go to the bathroom, grab a coffee or snack, and get outside for a minute if they can.
But tell them NOT to check their emails. The break is meant to be restful and reenergizing—not another distraction.
8. Breakout rooms: the energy savior in virtual workshops
Breakout rooms are a facilitator’s best friend when it comes to creating energy. They give everyone a chance to be heard and to work as a team.
However, breakouts aren’t without their challenges.
Don’t force breakouts on strangers - People can feel distanced or signed off if they’re immediately sent into breakout rooms with complete strangers. Starting your workshop with breakout rooms works better when people know each other.
Set clear breakout tasks - Participants will be far more productive with their breakout time if they have clear objectives and a clear time limit. But you can’t expect them to remember this information. In Butter, you can assign tasks, tools, and time limits to breakout rooms in advance so that participants know what they should be working on.
Use Miro boards - Speaking of tools, Miro boards with separate workspaces for each team help you and your participants keep track of how everyone’s doing in their breakouts. Participants can easily see if they’re falling. Miro boards also make it easier for groups to share their learnings when they check back in with the larger group.
Check in on your groups - It’s a weird energy shift for the facilitator when participants are sent out into their breakout groups. You’re suddenly sitting there alone as people are working their butts off. In a physical room, you can see it on people’s faces when they’re lost or not working.
With Butter, you have lots of options for checking in on your breakout rooms:
- Join a group - You can jump in and out of rooms
- Observe - You can observe rooms without joining
- Broadcast message - You can send a message to all groups
- Help requests - Groups can tap the ‘Help’ button to ask a question
- Task completion - You can follow each room’s task progress
Encourage sharing - When you check in with a group. Encourage them to bring their learnings back to the main group. “What are you talking about? Wow, that’s an interesting point! You should share that when we go back into the big room!”
Lean on your co-facilitators: If you’re blessed enough to have co-facilitators, you can check into all the breakout rooms. It keeps their energy up to see you’re in there. We assign facilitators to each group beforehand to lighten the load.
9. Create a safe space
As the facilitator, it’s your job—no one else’s—to create psychological safety in the group.
Here are some easy ways to create a safe space:
Acknowledge your participants - Nod, use facial expressions and reactions, and compliment participants for asking questions so that nobody ever feels stupid for participating.
Start early - If participants are given the chance to speak out loud within the first few minutes, they’re far more likely to be engaged and participate in the rest of the workshop. Getting to speak makes them feel like they’ve arrived and that they take up space.
Break the ice - Start with an introduction round question to break the ice. It doesn’t even need to be associated with the topic. Something like “What’s your typical coffee order?” or “Where do you want to go this summer?” invites people to share something personal without being intimidating.
If you’re working with a large group, you can use Butter’s open-ended polls to gather lots of responses at once.
For icebreaker inspiration, check out Butter's list of virtual icebreakers.
Go off-topic - It’s actually better not to ask an icebreaker that’s too closely related to the topic. Asking “What do you hope to get out of this session?” can establish a hierarchy that you want to avoid. It can create a hierarchy between the quickest-thinking or most senior participants in the workshop.
Allow time for over-talkers - During introduction rounds, you’ll always experience some people—especially those in power positions—who speak longer than you expected. But it’s almost always worth it, as it creates a feeling of safety in the group.
Breakout rooms create safety - Breakout rooms are the best way to create safety. In a breakout room, you get to engage with other participants, you’re listened to, and you’re respected.
10. Take the lead
Give your participants confidence that you’re going to lead them the entire way. Make the entire process transparent from start to finish.
At the start of a session, clarify why you’re here and what you’re going to do.
Before you start an activity, show your participants how it’s done. Make progress and learning evident as it happens. “Okay, that was a great inspirational talk. What are the three key insights we need to take away?”
Highlight what’s going on so people feel like they’re following. “Now we’re halfway through. We created this opportunity space, so now we’re going to take a break and then start making decisions.”
At the end of a workshop, explain what happens next. How will the learnings be summarized? Are there any follow-up actions required?
The more you communicate, the easier it will be for participants to engage!
Design engaging workshops with Butter
Butter makes it incredibly easy to plan, host, and debrief engaging workshops.
You can pre-plan your entire agenda and toolset with the Session Planner, you can keep the group’s energy high with reactions and breakouts, and you can keep your focus as the host by having all your tools and participants in a single window.