Running remote workshops is our new normal - and it’s challenging. We’ve been working with remote clients and teams since 2010. Here are our top 10 tips for planning, preparation and the tools you need to run great online meetings.
Know your tools really well
It’s stating the obvious but make sure you know the online conferencing tool you’re going to be using well - really well. Set up a test meeting with some friends and colleagues to test it out. Push all the buttons, click all the things, break stuff, and then try and unbreak it. Trust me, at some point something will go wrong and you don’t need the pressure of learning a new tool while you’re running a meeting!
Some of your attendees will install the software (if they don’t have it already) literally minutes before they join the meeting because they won’t be as prepared as you are. That’s not great but it’s to be expected; everyone is busy. But they’re a potential problem once the session starts, so make sure that you can guide them through their unpreparedness by knowing the software well.
The same goes for any other online tools you use. If you’re using a whiteboarding tool, a spreadsheet or anything else, make sure you know it as well as you can. They’re the tools of your trade, as a carpenter, or electrician, you should know them so well you can train others how to use them. We’ve had success with JamBoard and good feedback about Miro but there are lots out there.
Pre-work and preparation are key
Preparation is key. Whatever you would have prepared for a face-to-face meeting, expect more! Spend time planning (or, polishing a plan if it’s something you’ve run before). If you’re going to be using an online tool, such as a whiteboard or a spreadsheet, make sure you’ve set this all up before you start. Using a web whiteboard is slightly more effort than a regular whiteboard — drawing with a mouse is much harder than drawing with a whiteboard marker, so getting everything set up and ready to go beforehand is a must.
One useful thing to note is that a lot of online whiteboards can function with a tablet. So, join on your laptop to screen share, then join again on your tablet, so you can use your finger to draw, instead of a mouse.
Think about the attendees, their level of technological know-how, and their engagement with the topic and get them to prepare too. For some of your attendees, being in a workshop setting at their dining table or balancing a laptop on the breakfast bar will be quite a challenge - encourage them to be prepared too.
Have a very clear Agenda
So, all this prep means you start with a clear agenda, objectives and required outcomes. Put together your own agenda, we use a spreadsheet which we call our Pom Plan with details of how long each section should take (for example 1 or 2 Pom’s as we call them) the outcomes you intend to get and the result of the session as a whole. Remember it’s harder to focus remotely so make sure you plan in frequent checkpoints and get feedback to make sure everybody is participating and getting what they need from the discussions. For long sessions, ensure you take plenty of breaks. It’s more intense for participants so remember to include breaks of at least 15 mins every 90 minutes, with a reasonable time for lunch too!
If you want a refresher on how to run a great meeting check our blog post.
If any sections of your workshop involve people thinking up ideas, risks, problems or any other nuggets that would usually go on a post-it, send out some pre-work to your attendees:
Dear attendees, You are invited to attend an online workshop, the outcome that we hope to achieve is < state the outcome>. The agenda is as follows: Introductions around the (virtual) room. Context and objectives Information gathering & refinement (in subgroups of 4) Group sharing Agreed outcome and next steps. We’ll be running the session on < online software name>, so please install at the following URL <url>. We’ll also be using an online whiteboard called <whiteboard name><url>. It is very easy to use, but please go to the URL, sign up for an account if you don’t already have one and have a play with it. Session pre-work To ensure we get the most out of the time, please complete the following before the session: Install the conferencing software. Go to the online whiteboard and signup. Brainstorm, by yourself, or in groups, if you’d prefer, some of the ideas/problems/risks for the Information Gathering part of the session.”
Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
As professional facilitators we know that rehearsal is essential - don’t expect to be a great online facilitator overnight, it takes effort. We hone our skills on each other before we ever get near a client! See if you can do a trial run with a couple of trusted friends or colleagues. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown session, but just practice the different sections of the workshops as you intend to run them and get feedback as you go. If you can’t get anyone to help, run it to yourself and record it, review it and make crib notes to yourself for the event.
Test first - Run through the whole agenda (you can do it quicker than you would in the real workshop) and switch between your tools, try and spot anything awkward, confusing or just doesn’t feel right. Catching these now mean you can swap your agenda or exercises now rather than in flight.
Lights, camera, Action
Check camera angles, test audio and find someone on their side who can help co-facilitate, or take notes during the session. As a facilitator, you will definitely feel more comfortable knowing you and they are aligned, familiar and comfortable.
Online workshops and remote meetings are more challenging when you connect two meeting rooms. That’s when you need to be really strict about meeting etiquette, so, for instance, participants raise questions on the group chat and the facilitator answers them one at a time. It might sound draconian but if you’re facilitating 20 people in 2 or 3 remote groups it’s the only way. One of the best ways to make sure everyone is engaged and understands is to ask people (at random) to repeat any instructions or clarify the question you just asked - for example “Pat, can you repeat the instructions for the exercise so we know everyone heard them?”
Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills. Active listening involves listening with all senses. The ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening - maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Mmm-hmm’. Even in face-to-face meetings & workshops, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener because there are no visible signs of active listening. That might be so - the reality is that people zone out very easily but face-to-face it’s more obvious. Hence checking-in, getting feedback frequently is even more important. We can’t read the mood or body language as we do face-to-face, so effective listening and over-communication are our best means of compensation.
Most web conference tools work well with limited bandwidth, but it can be worthwhile restarting your router in good time before the conference call. If you’re using wi-fi, ensure the router isn’t obstructed by furniture, boxes, pet beds or anything else that could obstruct a strong signal.
Most software options are comparable in how much bandwidth they use, but we recommend Zoom - it’s great from an easy installation perspective and uses less bandwidth than others. If everyone attending the workshop already uses Slack, this can be an easy option with no installation necessary.
All these checks should be done before the meeting starts so everything is up and running smoothly - you don’t want to leave the team waiting while you reset your router!
Sometimes nerves get the better of us. If you do suffer from stuttering, coughing, dropouts or any other random thing, you can drop the video portion of your call. Are the rest of the family home? Now would be a good time to have a break from online games, downloads and video streaming to help secure your connection.
Sharing your screen
Be mindful of sharing your screen. Most software will allow you to share just a single window or an instance of the software. Sharing your entire screen could be dangerous — you could get notifications that you may not want the attendees to see or other apps and software you’re using to manage the workshop.
Share whatever you’re using as the primary tool. Everyone should have an instance of the tool open, but it’s useful for the attendees to be able to see your screen so you can highlight particular things you’d like them to see. It also means that, if they don’t want to ask for help, they can watch what you and others are doing and copy it. You may find that more people are less comfortable asking questions in a remote workshop or meeting, so you need to be extra vigilant about participation.
Interruptions and distractions
Be prepared - you’ll find people chatting while they’re on mute and worse chatting and forgetting to mute, and simply disengaging. That will happen until people get used to the idea of working remotely. The key is to be patient, see the funny side of it and subtly remind people that it’s a meeting!
Wrap it all up
Ending the session well is important, there are a few extra steps to take before everyone signs off.
Thank everyone for their time, efforts and patience.
Highlight specific examples of people who have been particularly helpful during your workshop
Run a final exercise to answer any final questions and gather any feedback. If you’re still whiteboarding, use that tool, otherwise, go around the group and ask everyone for one piece of good feedback and one piece of feedback that would improve the session for next time.
Depending on the nature of the workshop or meeting, email your attendees (including those who didn’t manage to attend) and summarise the session. When you’re working remotely, clarity is even more critical. Communication — yes, repetitive communication, confirmation of actions — is vital when you’re not in the same physical space as your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to overdo it.
The session summary, at a minimum, should include:
What you did and the outcomes.
Attach screenshots, slide decks, photographs of flip charts created, links to images or links to permanent whiteboards, so people have records of their involvement
Next steps, assigned actions and agreed-on timelines
Confirm again - who re-groups when, why and what they should have done
Ask, again, for feedback on the session — what would they do differently, what could be improved, dropped or added?
Running an interactive and engaging workshop without everyone being in the same room is challenging. Non-verbal communication is often far more important than the words actually being said and we can’t read the mood or body language as we do face-to-face, so effective listening and over-communication are our only means of compensation. The key is to accept that and approach it differently from how you’d plan and run a face-to-face workshop. Planning and what feels like over-preparation is essential, especially when it’s a new way of working. Eventually, you’ll become so familiar with this, our new normal, that you will forget it was difficult in the first place!
Performalise – your teams deserve it!