In this article
Dominic Port shares his techniques for planning your virtual workshops so that you can create the right energy even before the session begins.

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Dominic Port is a Senior UX Consultant at Ford Credit and former Director of Innovation at Pack—a design and innovation consultancy that helps teams launch product ideas and solve challenges.

For over 15 years, Dominic has helped organizations build better products, improve the way they work together, and help drive innovation from within.

Dominic joined us for a ButterMixer to share his advice for setting up a remote workshop.

Say hi to Dominic 👋

Planning a remote workshop is fundamentally different than planning an in-person workshop.

Like everyone else when the pandemic hit, we at Pack went from running most of our workshops in person to suddenly running workshops in a remote environment.

After running our first fully remote four-day design sprint, we were knackered.

Because of the shift to remote, we had to rethink certain activities and come up with new ways to keep up a sense of energy and engagement.

Since then, we’ve developed techniques for planning remote workshops that help our clients bring the right energy to our sessions.

But first, let’s start with the most common remote workshop challenges we need to overcome… 

Common remote workshop challenges 💻

Aside from having to motivate yourself to put on trousers, here are the five most common issues we've encountered with remote workshops:

1. Lack of alignment - Workshops help a team collect their thoughts and come to a consensus on how to move forward. It can be tougher to achieve alignment over a remote session without strong preparation.

2. Technical issues - At least one of your participants is going to have connection issues or technical problems. By preparing in advance, you can prevent or limit the impact of technical issues.

3. Lack of physical space - Whiteboards, flip charts, post-it notes, and pen and paper are our go-to tools for in-person workshops. But there are tools that can help you simulate these experiences virtually.

4. Lack of conversational flow: Online chats and Zoom calls lack many of the nonverbal cues we usually give off in an in-person workshop. People talk over one another or feel hesitant to unmute. Having a HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) attend can also be disruptive to equal participation.

5. Lack of engagement: Hours of presentations will lead to participants getting bored or distracted. For a workshop to be successful, you have to keep up everyone’s energy throughout the session.

Luckily, all of these issues can be smoothed out with a little preparation!

Tips for planning your remote workshops 📆

The more prepared you are for your workshops, the easier it will be to run them. Here’s how to plan remote workshops that get more results.

1. Understand your audience’s needs

The first step to planning your workshop is understanding your audience and their needs.

Interview key stakeholders in advance to discuss their goals and challenges. That way, you’ll know who’s going to be in the room and what they want to get out of it, you’ll be able to successfully deliver on what you’re being asked to do, and you'll build more trust and credibility.

This also helps address the HiPPOs. When they talk through their own goals for the workshop, they’ll often realize they need to take a step back during the workshop itself.

You should also let them know what you’re trying to achieve when planning the workshop. For example, you should establish:

  • who needs to be involved in the workshop
  • what time zones are at play; and 
  • how many participants you’ll have so you can pick the right activities

2. Create alignment by establishing goals and outcomes

Every workshop should have a clear set of goals and outcomes shared in advance. For instance, an alignment meeting has a different goal than a design sprint. 

To create alignment, we use Hyper Island’s IDOARRT meeting design. It’s a framework used to set out a clear purpose, meeting structure, and goals at the beginning of a session by clarifying:

  • Intention: What is the purpose of the meeting?
  • Desired Outcomes: What should be achieved by the end of the meeting?
  • Agenda: What steps will we take to get to the desired outcomes?
  • Roles: Who will be in the meeting, and who will be responsible for which outcomes?
  • Rules: What guidelines will be in place during the meeting?
  • Time: What’s the expected timeframe for the meeting, including breaks?

Creating a shared understanding will ensure participants feel safe, motivated, engaged, and confident.

🙋 Tip: Set ground rules upfront to avoid distractions. We ask participants to turn off their phones and to close everything else on their computers. We also encourage them to use Butter’s Raise Hand Queue when they have a comment or question, and we all agree to shout out a safe word like “David Hasselhoff” if a conversation gets off track.

Using a safeword like "David Hasselhoff" helps conversations flow this smoothly.

📕 Related reading: For more advice on setting ground rules for remote workshops, check out our guide to creating remote connections.

3. Mix in the on- and offline

Even though your workshop will be held remotely, grounding your workshop in your participants’ physical reality will help make your sessions more engaging, productive, and memorable.

Here are some ideas for bridging the virtual and physical:

  • Send workshop kits in the mail: Send your participants snacks, notebooks, post-its, pens, and SWAG.
  • Incorporate offline activities: Introduce offline activities like taking photos, drawing things, or scavenger hunts.
  • Simulate in-person collaboration: Use interactive whiteboards such as Miro or MURAL to simulate physical spaces in remote workshops.
  • Create personal workspaces: On your Whiteboard or Miro board, create a separate space for each participant to work from.
  • Use breakouts: Use Butter’s breakout rooms to simulate the feeling of moving through a physical space or to group related subject matter together.
  • Give homework: Don’t be afraid to assign homework before or after your workshop.

At Pack, we sent our participants a welcome pack that included healthy snacks, post-it notes, and sharpies. 

We also included a cardboard VR headset to simulate the in-person experience. Participants walked through what looked like a virtual art gallery with the group’s solutions pinned on the wall. The feedback was really positive!

4. Choose the right energy-boosting activities

Lots of exercises, games, and interactive methods that are great in live in-person workshops don’t translate to a remote setting.

Before running an activity in a remote session, trial them out beforehand with a smaller team, and allow a little extra time.

Here are some example activities that work well in remote workshops:

  • Energizers: Always include a fun and engaging warm-up exercise and don’t be afraid to take energizer breaks in the middle of your workshops too. GIFs are awesome for this.
  • Work together, but alone: Allowing time for individual work allows all participants to have a voice.
  • Dot voting: Get participants to make decisions by dot voting or using polls.
  • Snack breaks: Whole grains snacks like popcorn improve blood flow to the brain and help memory function. Send your participants snacks in the mail, or ask them to buy their own snacks ahead of time.

But how you run the activities and how you integrate them into your session is just as important as the activities you choose. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when planning your activities:

  • K.I.S.S (Keep it simple stupid): Don’t overcomplicate what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Provide examples: When planning an activity, include helpful images or examples of what you’re asking your participants to do.
  • Pre-plan timing and breaks: To keep energy up, keep workshops to 3 hours maximum and allow for frequent breaks.
  • Time-box your activities: Keep pace to your activities and minimize unrelated discussion with Butter’s Agenda or the built-in Timer
  • Include music: Butter’s Music Player is a great way of keeping energy up between activities.
  • Cameras on: Ask everyone to turn their cameras on. Being face-to-face helps to create remote connections.

🤗 Tip: A co-facilitator can help you plan the session, manage the technology during a session, and allow you to take breaks. Co-facilitators also give more texture to the workshops as your participants get to hear someone else’s voice too.

📒 Related reading: Designing engaging workshops: 10 tips for remote facilitators

5. Hold a technical dry-run

No one likes to be on a ship without a captain. As the facilitator, it’s your job to ensure your workshop stays on course.

To help steer the ship, run a dry-run workshop in advance to ensure:

  • Everyone attending has the necessary tools installed
  • Technology isn’t an issue and internet speeds won’t be a problem
  • They have a quiet location to work from on the day
  • Everyone understands the agenda and what’s expected of them
  • Everyone understands how to use the tools
  • You meet the team and familiarize yourself with who will be attending

When running preliminary workshops, I ask questions like, “Will you still be in the same place when we’re running our session next week?” If they have a poor connection, we give them advice, such as disconnecting any other devices that may be stealing their wifi bandwidth.

🎥 Tip: If you can’t run a workshop in advance, you can pre-record tutorials with Loom. If you’re running your workshop in Butter, you can send them the Participant’s Guide to Butter.

6. Debrief your workshops

After your workshop is over, don’t stop there.

Share the workshop results, including key takeaways and an action plan. Put together a round-up document as a takeaway for your client.

You should also take a retrospective. Encourage your clients to give you feedback. It’s important to understand what did or didn’t work so you can incorporate that feedback into your next workshop.

⏺️ Tip: Record your workshops. Not only can you send them to your clients, but you can also watch them back to learn from your own successes and challenges.

Plan your remote workshops with Butter 🧈

Remote workshops done right can introduce new ways of working and allow teams to collaborate in ways they never knew were possible.

To make planning your remote workshops even easier, try out the Butter Session Planner. With the Session Planner, you can:

  • Invite co-facilitators to help plan and your workshops
  • Create time-boxed agenda blocks
  • Prepare activities and tools in advance and attach them to your agenda
  • Edit your agenda on the fly during a workshop
The Agenda Planner makes it easy to set up agenda blocks with pre-set activities and tools.

For more information on the Session Planner, check out the Butter Handbook articles for setting up a new room and creating an agenda.

And if you’ve never tried Butter, now’s the time to give it a shot! Get Butter for free here.

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Features used in session

Agenda
Keep your sessions on track and on time. The time-boxed Agenda helps you plan every activity and tool—so you can present smoothly.
Agenda
Timer
Use the countdown Timer—backed by music—to let participants know how much time they have for exercises and activities.
Timer
Shared Rooms
Invite co-facilitators to shared rooms to help you prep, run, and wrap up your sessions with ease!
Shared Rooms
Miro
Miro is integrated directly into Butter, so you can run effective brainstormings, sprint workshops, and retrospectives without the need for tab switching.
Miro
Queue
Minimize interruptions with the Queue. Just ask participants raise their hand with the Queue button to share an idea, comment, or question.
Queue
Session Recaps
Butter Pro and Legendairy users can share and re-watch their sessions by recording them to the cloud.
Session Recaps
Reactions
Up the energy in your session and get instant feedback with emoji and sound-effect Reactions.
Reactions
Breakouts
Prepare breakout sessions in advance or arrange them on the fly—and even observe rooms without jumping in. It’s never been easier to facilitate breakouts!
Breakouts
Chat
With the Chat, participants can share their thoughts or questions without interrupting the flow of whoever's speaking or presenting.
Chat
Polls
Use Butter’s built-in polls to gather brilliant ideas, answer burning questions, make a group decision—or find out who’s a dog or cat person.
Polls
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