atlas by clearpeople

Remote workshopping – How to engage and interact successfully

24 March 2020

As we are entering a new situation where working from home is becoming more and more needed, in some instances required, collaborating remotely is essential. Undertaking administrative work from home can be simple but how do you engage with groups of people that you require input from at the same time?


Running workshops remotely is nothing new, in this article I will take you though some tips, tricks and tools that will make facilitating remote workshops and focus groups much easier.


Firstly, let's look at some scenarios that might require you to undertake a workshop online:

  1. You have a sales opportunity and require multiple of your colleagues to help define your strategy to win the work
  2. You are trying to brainstorm an idea with your team or customers
  3. You are trying to run a lessons learned session with colleagues from multiple teams after a project closest

are just three possible scenarios and are usually simply facilitated in a room on a day to day basis, so how can you best facilitate these online?



Workshop setup and planning

Typical activities:

  • Identify when required attendees are available through:
    • Calendars
    • Instant messaging
  • Book a room with the necessary facilities through:
    • Calendars
    • Room booking facilities
    • Phone the facilities team
  • Share all relevant collateral and documentation with attendees via:
    • Emails
    • Team sites or collaborative working areas
    • Print outs
  • Prepare the room:
    • Workshop materials – post-it notes, whiteboard diagrams
    • Notepads and pens or Sharpies
    • Chairs and tables if grouping is required
    • Screen setup for slide decks if needed

While some of these activities remain necessary, running remote sessions can also simplify things somewhat. However, there is a flip side to this…


Workshop setup and planning will be slightly easier, although you will still need to identify when people are available and share any relevant collateral, but booking rooms and providing physical assets won’t be needed in a virtual setting. 


There are a few things that you will need your attendees to do that they didn’t have to worry about with a traditional face to face workshop though, namely:

  • Make sure they have a headset – using laptop speakers and microphone is always a challenge with background noise and poor quality.
  • Make sure they have access to a webcam – using video during remote sessions ensures you can pick up on non-verbal communications and helps people focus.
  • Close other applications like Outlook or mail clients and anything that may distract them.
  • Turn their phones to silent or leave them in another room – the fewer distractions the better.

If you are using an online whiteboarding tool such as Mural, Microsoft Whiteboard or Invision Freehand then make sure to send all attendees invites to your board in advance so they can dive right in and spend the meeting focusing and not getting to grips with the additional software. 


If they are new to the software, then be sure to share some of the many online tips and tricks from the respective tool’s resource pool so they have a basic understanding before you start.


Alternatively, you may need to extend your meeting time by 15 mins and take your attendees through the basics of the tool yourself at the start of your session, so they are suitably up to speed.


Workshop facilitation:

Typical activities

  • Engaging with workshop attendees
    • Speaking (facilitator)
    • Q&A
  • Discussion
    • Whole group discussions
    • Separate group discussions
  • Presenting
    • PowerPoint
    • Sway
    • Keynote
  • Data capture
    • Post-it notes
    • Surveys or questionnaires
    • Note taking
  • Group consensus
    • Voting
    • Affinity mapping

These activities are somewhat simple in a face to face setting but depending on the tool you are using they can be more complex or equally simple.


First let’s look at activities that don’t hinge on the tools you are using. 


Engaging with stakeholders virtually should be as simple as when they are in the room with you. Here at ClearPeople we are a Microsoft Gold Partner, so we are using Microsoft Teams to facilitate our conference calling, through video, audio and instant messaging. It is a great way to engage with groups of people, share files and collaborate with each other. Obviously, there are a lot of similar tools out there that do the same thing but Teams, with its file storage, public and private teams, instant messaging, video calling and many more great features is our tool of choice and for good reason. 


Teams covers most of our non-activity-based interactions like discussion, presenting (through screen sharing) and generally engaging with attendees, there are lots of alternatives also available if you so choose. As for taking notes, well you again have a wealth of options available to you including our preferred tool Microsoft’s OneNote but also Evernote and Google Keep just to mention a couple.

However digital note taking while using the same device to facilitate or participate in an online meeting is going to involve a lot of switching programs and additional effort if you really want to be involved and engaged to the level you should be. Always remember a pad and pen is a great way to take notes while using your computer or laptop to focus on the meeting you are in. 

Out of our typical tasks it is primarily the data capture and group consensus areas that are creating gaps with our standard conferencing and note taking toolkit. I am trying to keep this short and sweet, so I am going to quickly go over the tools I am most familiar with that fill these gaps, namely:

  • Invision Freehand
  • Microsoft Whiteboard
  • Mural

Let’s look at how we accomplish these tasks in Invision Freehand


Freehand as its name suggests is more of a drawing tool but does provide the facility to add text, images and shapes so can quite happily facilitate workshops if needed. Each of the members of the Freehand is assigned a default colour so although post-it notes are not digitally available it is easy to identify each user’s input. Users can change their default colour so if you are looking to categorise each activity or section of the workshop by colour then have all your attendees select the same colour before each activity commences, however they may need to label their input if you need to know who inputted what onto your board.


Freehand allows you to become a “presenter” which means each of the other attendees will automatically follow you as you move around the board.  This feature is very useful if you have predefined sections of the board for each of the activities or sections of the workshop.


Unfortunately there is no voting or group consensus features within Freehand so you will have to do that using the instant messaging tool you are using or simply by asking for people to tell you which they’d vote for if required.


Next let’s look at Microsoft Whiteboard


Microsoft Whiteboard is loaded with a few more features than Freehand and is definitely geared more towards workshop facilitation, you can create “notes” which are essentially post-it notes and can even create what is called a “note grid” which allows you to group multiple post-its together all aligned neatly for a particular section or exercise. There is no way to follow others on the whiteboard, but you can see where others have provided an input for a short time after they enter their data. There are some great pre-defined templates for a variety of different workshop types including brainstorming, Kanban boards and problem solving just to mention a few. Providing both online access and a desktop application, Microsoft Whiteboard is a great tool for these kinds of virtual activities. 


Again, there is no voting facility in Whiteboard so, again, you will have to use your instant messenger or your conference call to garner group consensus on the outputs of your activities.



Finally let’s look at Mural


Mural is our tool of choice at ClearPeople as it has a much more comprehensive set of features for the style of interactive workshops we run. It allows for sections to be created, participants to follow other participants or the facilitator, notes to be added with a simple double click on the canvas and it has a wealth of templates and even icons that you can use to make sure your workshops are as visually engaging as you yourself should strive to be. Mural is online only so an internet connection is required to create and facilitate your workshop whiteboards. 


There are some great additional features that you can use while running your workshops with Mural, namely, the ability to set a timer to box off sections or activities of your workshop, a voting facility that allows you to easily garner group consensus and what Mural calls the “Outline” which enables you to group sections or activities and have them appear in a menu that allows the facilitator and participants to quickly and easily move around the canvas to view them.


To summarise

In conclusion: 

When prepping your workshop make sure you get your attendees up to speed with the technology you plan on using, make sure they have all of the hardware they need including headsets and webcams and try to make sure they are free from distraction as much as possible. 


Try to make your workshops visually engaging and use iconography and imagery where possible to liven things up. 


Think about splitting your workshops up if they are of substantial length to allow people to focus on activities or workshop sections with a short break in between, that way they won’t get bored and lose interest.


Good luck and happy workshopping!

Author bio

Jono Hodson

Jono Hodson

I capture and translate complex requirements into working backlogs, wireframing, prototyping and UX design, whilst acting as a conduit between design and development. I can often be found cycling one of my many bikes, skateboarding, producing electronic music and walking in the countryside.

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