Running great online workshops & meetings

Running remote workshops is our new normal - it’s different and it’s challenging.

At Quantum of Value, we’ve been delivering work 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 sessions.

1. 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. 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.

2. Pre-work and prep is 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, their engagement to 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.

3. Have a 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 Pomodoro 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 check-points 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 need a refresher, check out our blog post on how to run a great meeting.

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 sub groups 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.

4. 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, record it and review it.

Test first - Run through the whole agenda 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.

5. Know your audience

If you don’t know your attendees well, for example, they’re new clients or colleagues you’ve not worked with before; then it’s a good idea to get to know them before a full-blown meeting. We always test tech with any new client before we run the first workshop and it pays off because apart from occasional bandwidth issues we rarely have problems once we’ve started. Introduce yourself via emails and have a 5–10-minute video call with them first. It means you can 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

6. Overcompensate, over-communicate

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.

7. Mind your bandwidth

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 worksh