10 tips on how to deliver an engaging remote workshop

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As the glorious year that was 2020 nears an end, I thought it was an opportune time to share some tips on what I have learned over the last 12 or so months of running co-design workshops and meetings remotely. While most of us miss human connection and look forward to getting back to normal (who are we kidding, Service Designers are people people after all), it’s very likely the workplace will never be the same and so I like to think these tips will be relevant for some time yet.

The keyword in the title is engaging. This isn’t a list a list of tips on how to run a co-design workshop; it assumes you already know how to do this. Instead it focusses on the nuances of online facilitation and how to design and deliver your workshops in way that keeps people energised and engaged. Co-design workshops work best when people are involved and contributing. In fact, by definition, if people are not contributing and or participating, it’s probably not co-design.

Why is this important?

By now you’ve probably realised how mentally exhausting video meetings are and there’s a scientific reason for this. I like to compare what’s happening here with what happens when you try to read while someone else is driving; your body senses conflicting messages of motion between what you are seeing (static words) and what your inner-ear is detecting (motion). The dissonance between the two realities causes motion sickness. In a similar way (asterisk, not a doctor), in remote meetings, we can sit motionless for up to 8 hours on a video call while our brains are pushed to remain active and alert – “How do I look? Was that directed at me? My parcel should be arriving any minute now.” It’s exhausting.

You might be thinking “so what?” As a starting point, it is important to acknowledge that virtual meetings are not that same as physical meetings. If we don’t face into this fact, if we don’t design for it and cater to it, we risk not reaching our objectives and wasting everyone’s time, including our own. Exhaustion and video fatigue can impact: 

  • Recall: The ability for your participants to remember and recall the discussions and outcomes of the workshop can be diminished, impacting subsequent meetings, progress and decisions.
  • Attention Span: People’s ability to pay attention is reduced with distractions from their home, their pets, their pantry. As a facilitator, you will be competing with these distractions and you likely will lose if you don’t design for it. 
  • Social queues: We simply miss the normal social queues that we are naturally tuned to pick up on, like when it is time speak up, time to be quiet and acceptance or understanding of your messages. For example, a study in 2014 found that silence is interpreted differently depending on the duration and the channel; silence of just 1.2 seconds made people perceive the other person as less friendly and less focused.
  • Rapport: It is far harder to build rapport or a collaborative working relationship in a remote environment. This can lead to it being more difficult to get agreement and alignment of decisions or to resolve issues that might otherwise be trivial in a physical meeting environment. This is also particularly important as a facilitator when the purpose of the meeting is for you to get something from the participants, be it knowledge, input or engagement.

So, knowing all of this, how do we plan and deliver our workshops to ensure our participants are energised, engaged and actively participating?

The following ten tips try to address some of these challenges for now and far into the future as we begin to return to a larger proposition of physical meetings. They have been compiled from years of facilitating and running workshops and have been particularly honed in the last 12 months.

Tip #1 Does this have to be a 3 hour workshop?

This one obviously applies to virtual and physical meetings. How many times have you been asked to attend a meeting where you left going “that could have been resolved in an email.”

This starts with having empathy for your potential participants and considering the challenges they may be working through, such as having to sit in front of their computer for hours at a time or managing conflicting priorities. 

It also requires you to challenge and be honest with yourself. Look at your objectives and ask yourself, is there another way to do this? Can this be resolved in an email or can it wait? Is this just work to keep me busy? To do this, you really need to be clear on 1. what your objectives are and 2. the impact they have on other decisions. 

If you do however come to the conclusion that is does need to be a workshop, consider the next tip.

Tip #2 Don’t try to replicate what has worked in the past

I learned early on that one of my go-to workshop structures of splitting people into groups, getting them to work through something and bringing them back to a group, just didn’t translate well to the virtual world (especially before the concept of breakout rooms existed) for the reasons stated above. Through working with different clients ranging from NGOs, NFPs and big corporations over the last 6 months, some things I have learned from adapting your agenda include:

  • Shorten your sessions: As noted above, attention is a premium so try to keep sessions shorter. Run two sessions rather than one big session if you need. I found that going with 2/3 of the time I would usually need worked well.
  • Have fewer people: More people means less accountability. It’s easier to hide in a virtual meeting when there are lots of people involved. Having fewer people means you can target participants, manage collaboration better and hold people accountable.
  • Have fewer objectives, but more tasks: As we’re shortening the time we’ve got with participants it’s important to keep our objectives focussed, realistic and doable. What you should do however is create more tasks and activities and churn through them faster. This keeps people on their toes and reduces the risk of them checking out early. In one study with 15,000 meeting participants, they found when they used this tactic, among others, 86% of participants reported high or higher levels of engagement in virtual settings than in face-to-face meetings.
  • Include more breaks: This one is obvious.
  • Set more roles and accountability: The more roles and accountability you give people the more they have to be involved in the workshop. The important thing here is to keep checking in on how they’re tracking with their goals.

Tip #3 Set pre-work, not just pre-reading

Given the shorter timeframe for workshops, it is important that your participants really understand the context of what is happening and why, and are fully prepared to get the most out of the meeting. A really simple yet powerful way to encourage this is to set pre-work rather than just pre-reading for your workshops.

The pre-work doesn’t need to be difficult or particularly time-consuming and should be very targeted in its purpose.

As an example, in a recent workshop I facilitated, our objective was to explore and design a new banking experience for business customers. In order to be fully prepared for the workshop, it was critical that all participants understood the current experience. To achieve this, we prepared a pre-work pack that set up the context, set out what to expect from the workshop and also gave the participants a small worksheet/activity that they needed to fill in before the meeting. The worksheet simply asked them several questions that required them to do some basic research, about 20 minutes worth, across the current banking experience. 

So don’t be afraid to set homework. At times it can be just as important as the workshop itself, particularly if the people participating are critical to the outcomes of the workshop and in these cases, they typically understand it is part of doing their job.

Tip #4 Assign roles to EVERYONE

Imagine this: if I invited you to a movie theatre and sat you down and gave you pop-corn, what do you think your job is for the next two hours? Most people would say, “to watch a movie”.

Similarly, if I were to take you to a tennis court, gave you a tennis racquet, runners and some tennis balls, what do you think your role would be? Well, “play tennis” of course.

The same goes if I invite you to a workshop and didn’t tell you anything about the meeting, expecting you to just turn-up. What would your role would be? For many, it could easily be expected that your role is that of an observer or passive participant.

If you are running a co-design workshop where you require something from the participants (input, opinion, decision, money etc.) it is critical that you make that clear to them. If you don’t do that, they will quite reasonably assume their role is passive and you will lose their engagement. In context of a remote workshop, their passive engagement will take up a valuable box on the screen that might have otherwise been used by someone else.

“The biggest engagement threat in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer.”

When it comes to assigning the roles, remember that assigning/communicating roles to the facilitators is equally important as the participants. In my experience, I have found it ideal to have two facilitators, particularly when there are more than 15 people. If in doubt, use the same rule our education system uses; 1 educator for every 10 kids. Don’t forget tip #2 though and try to have fewer people.

A co-facilitator can help to read the participants engagement when you are speaking and can help to avoid the awkward silences that can be misinterpreted in remote/video meetings. You should also choose a co-facilitator that complements your skills, persona and tone rather than being too similar to yourself. A good-cop bad-cop routine often works well. As an example, I often like to be outcomes-focused while my co-facilitator can take more of a nurturing and encouraging role to foster conversation. 

Tip #5 Try something new

My next tip is to try something new! There are so many great tools available now for virtual collaboration. Some tools where I have had great success with include:

  • MuralA great tool to replicate a shared design wall or space.
  • FigmaOne of my favourite User Experience and User Interface design tools allowing multiple users to interact on a design together. 
  • LucidchartA fantastic tool for designing processes, user journeys, service blueprints and technical designs together.
  • TeamMicrosoft is launching breakout rooms which are perfect for design workshops and does a much better job at allowing us to split up into groups for smaller tasks and then come back to a larger group.
  • SharepointMicrosoft Sharepoint has been around for a long time but it really does to a good job in allowing teams to collaborate across Word documents, Powerpoint presentations and Excel worksheets.

There are lots of others out there, just make sure your participants have access to them and know how to use them. Tip #3 is a great starting point for this.

Tip #6 Be a DJ – context is king

What I mean by this tip is, when planning for workshop, consider your role as a facilitator in context of being a DJ. Think about what acts were before you and who is playing after you. Consider what time during the day you are playing and what time you will finish.

To a DJ, this information is important because it allows them to adjust their performance in the context of everything else that has happened and will happen. They try to anticipate the mood of the crowd and play to that.

Similarly, consider your audience. Consider if they have just come from a three hour workshop or have a long meeting after your meeting, how would they be feeling? Are you going to get the best out of them? Be conscious of the timing, either in the day, week, month or year. It might be end-of-financial year for example, where your participants may be deeply mentally invested in other work and so might not give your workshop the attention you expect or need.

Within the context of a day, I like to break things up as shown in the diagram below:

The period from 10am to 2pm is the optimal time for learning something new. As your body wakes from sleep, it continues to ‘warm-up’ throughout the day, peaking around midday. At this time, your working memory, alertness and ability concentrate peaks. This is the best time to present new information, discuss concepts and make decisions.

Now, if your objective is creativity, problem-solving or brain-storming, the period from 1pm to 3pm is better. It might sound counter-intuitive as everyone knows during this time we feel a bit more tired and perhaps lazy, but it is this naturally lazy state that encourages us to find short-cuts or simplify work, great for process improvement and simplification conversations.

From 3pm onwards, this time is often associated with reductions in will-power in a work context. I tend not to run workshops in this time as people are tired and distracted with other things such as school pick up. What I do use this time for as will-power is lower, is to ask for things 😉

The above is what I go by from experience but you can read more here.

Tip #7 Be a DJ… again – regulate the room’s energy

Great DJs or musicians do one thing really well; they manage and regulate people’s energy through their performance. If you are at a club or concert and the DJ plays hit after hit, by song five, you’re probably drained.

What a good DJ will do is push and pull or ebb and flow the energy throughout the performance. They will push energy by playing a popular song or two that will get the punters going and then they will pull back with something less famous that gives people time to discover new content and also recuperate their energy before the next big hit.

In a similar way, when running a workshop you should consider the same with regard to managing people’s energy. Particularly if it is a 3+ hour workshop, you don’t want to be pushing constantly for more action or more input. Instead use breaks and smaller tasks to regulate the energy flow. This gives them time to contribute, digest and rest before contributing more.

This is a really important one for me personally. I tend to talk fast and have lots of energy and this tip is a good reminder that I shouldn’t expect the same from everyone. 

Tip #8 Role play; not as awkward as you might think!

This one is a bit of a play on Tip #2 (don’t replicate what has worked in the past.) That is, I find role play exercises in real life a quite awkward. Participants tend to stand around feeling uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do with their hands, they are trying their best acting skills while everyone one is watching and are so self-conscious; it’s just awkward.

Surprisingly however, in contrast, I have found role play in a virtual workshop to work very well. My hypothesis of why this works well is people feel like they can hide their awkwardness better. They are often off screen when it’s not their turn to talk, the glare of people watching isn’t so real, they don’t need to worry about where to put their hands and the safety of the ‘turn-off-video’ button is only a click away.

Role play is a really powerful co-design tool as it creates empathy for the end users and helps to quickly highlight parts of a process that don’t work, don’t make sense or can obviously be better.

Tip #9 Communicate in different ways

The video above introduces this tip in a fun way and is a reminder that communication is not always as straight forward as you might think.

When my partner was studying his Certificate in Education Support, he would tell me that core to their course was understanding the importance of catering for multiple learning styles and communication styles. Different learning styles can be grouped into visual, auditory, reading & writing and kinaesthetic. 

In a similar way, when preparing your workshops, consider different ways to diversify how you communicate with your participants and how you want them to contribute. This will keep people alert and engaged and it will help with regulating energy as discussed in Tip #7. It will also ensure you are catering for different learning preferences and make your content more accessible.

Tip #10 Create empathy, including for yourself!

This tip is to remind you to look after yourself. It is much easier to build rapport with others when you are running a workshop in person than online where you’re sitting behind a glass wall and feel removed from them.

A simple technique I use to create empathy for myself as a facility/designer, is to crank up the storytelling aspects of my style and to add more personal anecdotes into my delivery. This is particularly useful when running a workshop where you are not quite so familiar with the participants or if you need to ask something of your participants.

I found an interesting case for the importance of building rapport and empathy in study at a hospital. Here it was found that medical practitioners who had better rapport and empathy for their patients (and vice versa) tended to have better impacts on their patient’s health and recovery. The reason for this is that the patients tended to feel more accountable to the care being given and therefore had better adherence to treatment recommendations e.g. taking their medicine or doing their rehabilitation exercises as prescribed.

We talk a lot in design about building empathy for the customer or end-user but the same goes when we are facilitating. If you want buy-in, a decision, an outcome or a contribution from your workshop participants, you will have a much better chance if you have built rapport and empathy with them.


So to recap, I have pulled these ten tips together during the challenges we have faced as designers and facilitators throughout COVID lockdowns of 2020. While many of these tips relate to the contrast between video and physical meetings, I hope you will find them valuable well into the future.

As a summary, remember: