8 not-so-obvious tips for remote workshop facilitation

Your goal is to use the time of participants wisely, to follow the plan and close with the expected outcomes. The least you want is to spend time in activities that do not add value to the end goal, like dealing with technical issues.

But let me start with a story of the non-digital world. In the beginning of this this year, I travelled to run a 3-day workshop at the office of one of our main clients. I had spent plenty of time planning and I had the support of two UXers as co-facilitators.

However, I was overly anxious that something would go wrong. First, the workshop would be in English (my mother tongue is Spanish). Second, most participants and scenarios were highly technical and conversations would not be easy to follow. And finally, the hierarchy of the participants was high, from SME’s to Managers and Directors, which made me even more nervous.

Well, the workshop went just as planned. We received very positive feedback and the outcomes served as a base to plan the work for the rest of the year. However, my experience as facilitator was NOT as good, only because my concerns had taken me to a level of stress and discomfort that I could not manage.

I reflected on the experience and took actions to remove unnecessary stress as a facilitator and to allow myself to have fun in the workshops that followed. These, however, have been remote due to the global pandemic, which have presented new challenges. Hopefully these tips help you to become more comfortable every time you facilitate a remote workshop.

Prepare lunch or a snack. Although you might have included breaks in your agenda, it is likely that you will be busy making sure everything is ready and cleaned up when participants get back. You don’t want to end the workshop on an empty stomach, gastritis and bad temper. So, prepare a healthy and energizing meal or snack beforehand, just as if you went to a physical office. Having coffee or tea and water close to you are also a good idea.

Be ready to facilitate sitting or standing. My company’s office furniture is quite comfortable, chairs with adjustable heights, desks in different sizes and shapes. In contrast, I only have a regular desk and not the best chair at home. Therefore, unless you’ve invested in a thousand dollar adjustable height desk, you should think about ergonomics before a remote workshop. I try to give them a maximum duration of 4 hours. It is quite challenging keeping everyone’s attention longer than that. But even in 4 hours, it can be exhausting and you can end up with back, neck and legs pain. DIY with whatever you have at home and create your own adjustable height desk. I use two plastic containers to shift every hour from sitting to standing. I know, it’s not aesthetic at all, but it works perfectly.

Mind your background. Make sure you are comfortable with what people can see in the camera behind you. You don’t want to feel uncomfortable and get distracted by looking at your own mess in the room where you are. If you don’t want to bother, set a neutral virtual background beforehand. Also, if you will be running the session, you want to have good lighting. Working next to a window is a good idea, as long as you have the light facing you, otherwise, the only thing others will see is your shadow.

Find out and communicate what is the recommended browser. I am quite familiar with MURAL and I had not had any technical issue so far. I tested the tool with users inside and outside my organization, with and without an account, with collaborator and visitor links. It had worked well. However, in my last workshop, there were two people struggling adding images and moving things around. Turns out they were using Firefox and Safari, while MURAL recommends Google Chrome. I knew this, but I forgot to tell them, only because no one ever had this issue in previous workshops. My recommendation is to not assume that everyone uses the same computer and browser as yourself. Once you define a collaboration tool, find out the recommended browser by the service provider and communicate it to the participants before the workshop.

Lock the objects in the canvas that are not meant to be moved. Do not expect participants to respect templates, boundaries and objects the find in the canvas. No matter if we are 3, 10, 20 or 50 years old, we love touching and interacting with things. A few months ago, while running a team-building activity, I forgot to lock the objects of the instructions and the sample card. Before I had even started explaining, participants were already moving the card around, deleting objects, editing the title, drawing emojis and not paying attention to me. I felt like I was losing it. Therefore, make sure you have templates ready, but also, that the objects that are not meant to be moved, are locked.

Provide instructions first, links after. Once you’ve shared a link to a board, consider yourself ignored for the next 5 minutes. Specially if participants do not use collaboration boards on a regular basis, they get excited seeing multiple cursors in the screen and moving things around. While this happens, your voice is on the background, ignored. To avoid this, make sure you provide instructions first, then links. I normally start with a warm-up exercise for people to introduce themselves and get familiar with the tool. So I would present my screen, walk them through the board and explain the exercise. Once everyone is clear, I share the link.

Be ready for disengaged participants. Whether you run a physical or a remote workshop, there will be always someone who arrives late, someone who leaves early, someone who comes and goes and someone who multi-tasks. But you know what? You can’t control that. You are responsible for setting the stage and provide the tools, like the role indicates, you are there to facilitate collaboration. So, encourage participation, but don’t feel bad if some participants are simply disengaged. Try to make the most out of the people who are active and engaged. They will be the ones who express appreciation for the time you spent planning and the time everyone allocated for the workshop.

Set a reminder to document the session. A great advantage of virtual workshops is that you can keep the boards for as long as you need and create copies if needed. Still, that doesn’t mean that you should wait until the workshop is finished to document. As activities progress, the output of one activity becomes the input for the next, so stickies might be moved from one section, losing track of the process. It will be more difficult to understand later how early ideas matured into more elaborate and prioritized concepts. What I do is putting a sticky note next to my laptop with the word SCREENSHOTS, so that I am reminded to capture screens or use the feature to download a PDF of the board several times along the session.

  1. Have nutritious food, water and coffee ready
  2. Set a comfortable physical workspace for yourself
  3. Prepare an appropriate physical or virtual background
  4. Make sure everyone has the right browser
  5. Lock the objects that are not supposed to be moved
  6. Instructions first, links after
  7. Be comfortable with disengaged participants
  8. Document along the session
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