Facilitating a Remote Workshop: You Can Do It

This blog provides you with ideas and resources to help you get started in identifying ways you can plan a workshop to meet your goals, your coaching preferences, and personal style.

Your resident workshop is suddenly required to be delivered remotely, by you. Now what?

Introduction

If you are new to facilitating remotely you probably have a lot of questions and concerns about how this can be done in an inclusive and effective way that motivates and engages participants and meets workshop intended goals and outputs. This blog, intended for those who are newer to running remote workshops, provides you with ideas and resources to help you get started in identifying ways you can plan a workshop to meet your goals, your coaching preferences, and personal style.

Master the Tools

The first step to becoming a successful remote facilitator is to become confident in the meeting and collaborative tools (such as Zoom) you will be using to facilitate your workshop. Being confident with the tools enables you to focus more on workshop tasks and less on managing the technology. Learn the tool features you anticipate needing and consider the possibilities. Take the time to practice with friends, families, other coaches, peers; whoever you can get online. Feeling confident with the technology will enable you to assist workshop participants who are new to working remotely, maintain a positive workshop flow, enable effective outcomes, and eliminate wasting your participants’ time.

Make a Plan

Create a workshop plan. To start, identify the following:

  1. What is your goal for the workshop? It is essential to have a clear goal that you can communicate to participants, use to keep the workshop on track, and to provide a basis for post-workshop evaluation. Having a clearly articulated goal is essential, otherwise there is no point in delivering a workshop. Keep the goal simple and try to focus on one main thing. Examples include “Student teachers will recognize the importance of inclusivity in effective teaching and student learning.” or “Students will demonstrate Newton’s Three Laws of Motion”.
  2. What are the concrete outputs you are looking for from the workshop? These outputs may include screen captures of participant ideas, list of brainstorming session ideas, identified solutions, or prototype drawings. Identifying the concrete outputs helps you identify the processes and tools you will use for the facilitation of the workshop. 
  3. Who will attend the workshop? Will they all know each other or are they meeting together for the first time? What is the diversity of the group? Are there any special needs for any participants? Will the participants be able to meet the goals of the workshop? Depending on your goals you want to be sure to bring the right people to the virtual table. 
  4. Write up a workshop agenda and assign a time on task for each agenda item. Meeting remotely requires a different level of attention and energy and it is important to let participants know what to expect in terms of workshop goals, activities, and time commitments. Some example items that may be in an agenda:
    • Workshop overview such as a brief introduction to the workshop and the workshop goal
    • Participant introductions. Depending on your group size you may want each participant to briefly introduce themselves and provide information on their role, knowledge domains, work experience, anything relevant to the workshop goal or of interest to the group. 
    • Ice breaker activity to get people comfortable and talking, if needed. 
    • Workshop activities and reflections
    • Planned workshop breaks
    • Summary/Workshop wrap-up and workshop follow-up plan.

Be sure to give each item on your agenda an assigned item a time on your agenda. This helps you design a more focused workshop and help your participants feel that their time is valuable.

Create a workshop follow-up plan. It is important to get feedback on the effectiveness of your workshop, i.e., did your workshop meet your goals? Ask participants for feedback. Were they engaged, comfortable contributing, were there any tech issues, etc.? Participant feedback is essential for continuous improvement and growth. Be open and express appreciation for all feedback.  In addition to asking participants for feedback, be sure to send out a post-workshop survey.

Facilitating Remote Collaboration

Designing an environment that ensures all participants are active, engaged, and feel they are part of the process requires an intentional plan. While it will be easy if the group already knows each other and have workshopped before, facilitating a group that is both new to each other and collaborating remotely, brings its own set of challenges. Some ideas for enabling remote collaboration and brainstorming are:

  • Prepare participants for contributing. This can be done by sending out a read-ahead that outlines and provides background to the topic, problem, design, whatever will be discussed.
  • Provide a “rules for engagement” list of protocols for collaboration and/or brainstorming. These may include not judging others ideas but building on them, staying focused on the big picture, being encouraging of others speaking up, going for a quantity of ideas, etc. Your protocols should reflect your expectations of how participants will engage in a collaborative format. 
  • Have an ice-breaking activity at the start of the workshop to get everybody contributing and to create a group conversational dynamic. This can include an introduction game, answers to a question provided, whatever icebreaker you think would work best for the group. 
  • Break up the collaboration or brainstorming into smaller groups. For example, if you are wanting a brainstorm solutions session on any topic, it could be too much to just jump in with the big group. Consider first giving participants time to “self-brainstorm,” then enable small group brainstorming, (three participants is optimal), and then bring the group back together and have each group report their solution results. In setting up groups for collaboration:
    • Make sure each group has one person is identified as note-taker
    • Make sure each group has the tools they need, such as a virtual whiteboard, meeting space, tech tools, anything they need to share ideas, screenshots, concept drawings, web links, etc.
    • Design groups ahead of time with the intention of enabling diverse perspectives on the topic or task
    • Give the groups a ten-minute warning before bringing the group back together so they can wrap up their thoughts and review notes for consensus 
    • Provide worksheets to frame discussions and outputs. These may be SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) charts, concept maps, timeline frameworks, whatever worksheets will work best for your goals. Worksheets can provide the focus to help keep each group working on the intended outcomes of the workshop.
  • Large group collaboration strategies can include:
    • Setting up different whiteboards ahead of time with titles and objectives for that session
    • Having speaking protocols. While small groups can be more casual in speaking in a remote environment, for larger groups you may want to have a plan in place for speaking such as asking them to raise their hand, add their name to the chat, or just going around the circle and calling on each participant.
    • Use a thumbs up or a poll function to get group votes/feedback on ideas presented
    • Be sure to invite everybody to contribute
    • Enable screen sharing, assign people to take notes, get people to help with chat questions as needed

End of Workshop Activities

After the collaboration, brainstorming, documentation and note-taking is done, bring the group back together and provide a summary overview of workshop results.  Invite the participants to provide feedback on what they learned, or how the process or tools worked and to offer any other feedback. After the workshop send out a survey to get more feedback that will help you refine and improve your next workshop.

General Best Practices for Remote Workshops

  • Send out pre-workshop materials. These can include workshop agenda, background information, introduction to participants, instructions on how to log-in, technology links, workshop goals, protocols, etc. There is no one-fits-all pack, but provide as much information ahead of time that will help participants be ready and feel comfortable participating.
  • Enable a way for participants to be able to test their systems ahead of time to ensure that the technology works for them. Provide a POC who can help people if they are having difficulty. 
  • Try to hold your workshop in the mornings when people feel more energetic. 
  • Have the workshop session opened 15 minutes before the start, have music playing softly to create a mellow friendly environment, greet people by name as they join the workshop. 
  • Have something on the screen when you open the meeting. It could be the agenda, an inspirational quote, an image, something that sets a tone to “the room”.
  • Try to keep to your agenda times, but be somewhat flexible should inspiration or ideas take an interesting deviation. If that happens adjust as needed, maybe a current discussion is more important than the next exercise. You will need to facilitate the flow online, just as you would face to face. 
  • Check in with the participants often to make sure everything is working or ask if they have any questions. Use the tools within the meeting system to get quick immediate feedback, such as the thumbs up or other emoji, polls, etc. 
  • Keep some questions or ideas as back-up for when you need to help participants get started or for when they get stuck
  • Create slides to use that keep the workshop on track and remind users of objectives of each exercise. 
  • Inform participants of what tools they might want to have at their desk. For example, they can use pen and paper to mock-up ideas that can be photographed and uploaded for group discussion. Encourage creativity from the participants in different ways they can get their ideas to the group.
  • Give participants regular breaks to stretch, reflect, snack, and rejoin.
  • If possible, try to limit the workshop to two hours. Shorter multiple sessions will be more productive than one long session.
  • For equity of experience have all participants join remotely, even if this means your resident participants are joining remotely from their own spaces. 
  • Consider the pros and cons of recording the workshop. Will it inhibit people from speaking or will it be beneficial to have the entire workshop documented? If you do plan on recording be sure to let the participants know. 
  • Show your personality, engage authentically, express your challenges, share your stories, personalize the workshop in a way that captures who you are, your participants will appreciate your “humanness”.

Summary

Facilitating remotely is a learned skill that encompasses integrating technology, workshop strategies, and your personal style in a new paradigm. For first-timers it can be daunting, but after practicing and selecting tools, processes, and communication protocols that work for you and your participants, you will start to feel comfortable and be able to test new ideas within the framework.

Sources


About the Author

Dianna Beardslee is an Instructional Design Subject Matter Expert and Consultant for MKS2, LLC. Dianna believes that “everything is possible”. She turns problems into ideas, ideas into solutions, and solutions into programs.

Read our other blog posts