10 best practices for running better remote workshops
October 3, 2023
Traditional workshops are already a challenge for many facilitators, but throw a distributed team into the mix and now you have a remote workshop without the benefits of a physical space to collaborate.
Remote workshops, like remote work itself, can offer a unique range of benefits to those who know how to properly take advantage of them. But, admittedly, they can also take a little getting used to. There won’t be a table full of snacks to bring everyone together. Neither will there be many of the physical tools you know and love so well.
So what do you get out of holding a remote workshop? Potentially, a more engaging, rewarding, and open experience for everyone. To ensure this possibility becomes a reality, let’s get into all you can do with a remote workshop — and how you can make the most of it.
What are remote workshops?
A remote workshop is an interactive and collaborative class, working session, or learning experience that takes place virtually. Rather than meeting in a single physical location, participants use digital collaboration tools, such as video or chat applications, to communicate and work together. This makes it possible for people to join in from many different locations all over the world.
Remote workshops vs. in-person workshops
So what makes remote workshops such a unique offshoot from their traditional in-person counterparts? The most obvious difference is the fact that they take place online. While this can give them greater flexibility, it can also introduce some unique challenges.
For one, participants will likely be distributed remotely and participate in the workshop from their homes or personal offices. Meeting virtually often means there will be much less of a hands-on component. Instead, participants will have to pay close attention to whatever is happening on their screen. This may be more difficult for some people.
Additionally, because remote workshops have a much larger dependency on communication tools and other collaborative technology, there is a larger risk of potential technical issues, whether from a spotty connection or a lack of knowledge about how to use certain devices or tools. That can be frustrating if it becomes disruptive.
While these challenges may deter some people, none of them are unavoidable. In fact, for many, the benefits of meeting remotely rather than in person more than make up for these differences.
Benefits of remote workshops
As hybrid and remote work has become more normal, the popularity of remote workshops has steadily increased. This is especially true since the pandemic when many organizations were forced to meet virtually. Still, after discovering their advantages, many of these organizations now prefer to hold their workshops virtually. Here are some of their most common benefits:
Geographically diverse: Making the commute to the office for an all-day workshop can be a chore at best and outright impossible for others. Remote workshops have no such barriers, enabling people to learn, share ideas, and connect no matter where they are.
Cost-effective: After adding up travel and hosting costs, lunch and per diems, office supplies, and any other associated costs, in-person workshops can be quite an expense. In contrast, remote workshops can be done on a shoestring budget. All it really takes is an Internet connection.
More efficient: Making sure an in-person workshop continues to deliver value after it’s all wrapped up can involve tedious documentation and transcription. With remote workshops, all of that can instead be done automatically. Some tools, like digital whiteboards, can even preserve the work itself for people to reference and learn from later on.
Better tools: It can be difficult to take advantage of too many tools while managing people in person, but there’s no such problem while remote. Whether you want to monitor each person’s progress, hold anonymous feedback sessions, or break off into competing groups, virtual workshops can put the most powerful communication, collaboration, and creative tools at your fingertips.
Easier to standardize: It doesn’t matter if you’ve finally figured out the formula for a successful workshop — if it’s in-person, setting it up for the next group can still be a time-consuming affair. With remote workshops, all it takes is another invitation and you’ll already be set up for another success. If you’re really ambitious, you could even hold multiple workshops in one day.
How to run better remote workshops
Running your workshops remotely can be more inclusive, flexible, efficient, and even fun — just as long as you know how to properly prepare, facilitate, and follow up. Follow these steps to ensure your next remote workshops are the best they can be.
How to prepare for remote workshops
Knowing how to get ready for your workshop is vital. Just as you wouldn’t jump into an in-person session without first doing some preparation, neither should you go into a remote workshop unprepared. Here are a few tips to consider when thinking about your next session.
Plan and set the agenda
Just as you would for any other session, your first step should be to sit down and plan out what you want to accomplish in this workshop. Do you already know the problem you’re addressing, or do you need to explore this with your group? Do you expect participants to come up with potential solutions, or is the goal just to educate?
Once you’ve determined your objectives, start building out an agenda for the workshop that accommodates the remote model. Typically, this should involve a shorter length and more frequent breaks in order to avoid video fatigue. Aim for no longer than three hours or so. If possible, map out what you and your participants should be doing every 15 to 30 minutes so that you can be sure you’re efficiently utilizing this time.
Choose and test your tools
As you create your agenda, you should also think hard about which tools will help you best meet your goals. Keep in mind your format. People won’t be sitting around tables together or able to talk like they can in person. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools available these days you can use to facilitate conversation and collaboration. Just try to think through every part of your agenda, then have a tool ready for each activity.
Also, don’t forget to test out all your tools beforehand. Nothing is worse (and more disruptive) than a technical problem in the middle of your workshop. Tell all your participants to download and install these tools, then test them out beforehand as well. This way, you can help ensure everything will run smoothly.
Prepare your participants
The more information you can give participants before the workshop, the faster they’ll be able to dive in. Start with sharing your goals and agenda for the workshop. Make clear what you expect them to get out of it, as well as what you expect them to put in. Send them background documents to read over or activities to complete on their own. This asynchronous work can save time and allow you to focus on more urgent activities during the session.
To help keep everyone organized while you prepare them for the workshop, it can be a good idea to centralize all your information and documents in one place. While an onboarding email or shared Google doc is a great place to start, consider taking it a step further with a pre-work template. This is an easy and streamlined way to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Running the remote workshop
Once you’ve done the preparation, it’s time to take the wheel. Running a workshop remotely isn’t actually a whole lot different than doing so in person. As long as you remember to keep the energy flowing, and then use some of the following tips along the way, you’ll be sure to keep everyone engaged.
Break the ice
Jumping right into the thick of things, especially when everyone is virtual, can be difficult. That’s why it’s always a good idea to start out with a few ice-breakers. While you may be used to doing these kinds of activities in person, there is no shortage of great warm-ups you can do online. You could get everyone to do a little show and tell, show off your office, or even share some of your favorite book recommendations. This is the time to let loose and have some fun, so be creative!
Encourage active participation
Keeping everyone’s attention can be a consistent problem for workshops, especially when people feel like they can hide behind their cameras. But you can get around this by spicing things up with active participation, something remote sessions are particularly great at.
For example, rather than having everyone sit around while you talk, take advantage of the tools at your disposal by introducing some interactive group activities. You could have participants share ideas using virtual sticky notes, or they could compete against each other by taking regular quizzes. You could even assign workshop leaders, and then organize breakout sessions so that participants can complete specific tasks inside smaller groups. These kinds of activities are a great way to foster collaboration and discussion throughout the session.
Engage with visuals and other media
Another great feature of the remote workshop is how organically you can incorporate visuals alongside your narrative. For instance, instead of a messy whiteboard at the front of the room or even the PowerPoint presentation every in-person workshop seems to come with, you could leverage the remote format by sharing your screen to demonstrate different tools or concepts. Alternatively, you could gradually build out diagrams in real time that illustrate and enhance what you’re talking about. Utilizing visual media in this way is a great strategy for keeping your workshop clear and organized while also ensuring everybody remains engaged.
Break up the room
Workshops that just involve listening to one person talk the whole time won’t be very exciting for anyone. That’s particularly true when everyone is meeting online. This is why breaking up your participants into separate groups can be so beneficial. Not only does this offer a more interactive element, but it also gives people the chance to socialize and get to know each other a little bit better, rather than just being a face in front of a screen.
With remote workshops, there are multiple ways to do this. Some video conferencing tools, for example, will let you create separate breakout rooms for smaller groups to start brainstorming or breaking apart a problem. This is an easy and natural way to get people talking to each other. If you’d like to take this a step further, you could even pair these rooms with custom whiteboards, such as our team breakout template, so that all their work stays organized and is easy to present to the larger group later on.
What you should do after the workshop
You’ve gone through all your activities and wrapped up your workshop. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back. But your work isn’t over yet. Before you start packing up, there are a few more things you can do to ensure your remote workshop makes the kind of impact you want.
Recap the important stuff
More than likely, you covered a lot of ground over the past few hours. Instead of hoping everyone took good notes, you should ensure your most important points get remembered by reminding everyone what they were. Take every opportunity to do this. Include a quick recap as you close out the workshop, then write out a more thorough summary in a follow-up email a day or two later. If the workshop takes place over several days, then do this after each one, and then include a detailed recap of everything a week or so after.
Even better is if you can take advantage of your remote workshop tools to help participants remember and review what they learned. You could do this by sending out any shared docs you created or screen shares you recorded during your session. Or, if you used a digital whiteboard, you can simply direct them to it so that they can retrace the lesson, review its ideas, and dive back into the resources you used.
List off action items
While this should be part of your recap, it’s worth calling out on its own. Once the workshop is over, be sure to call out the actions each participant should take in order to implement new strategies, fulfill any commitments, and continue incorporating what they learned. If you assigned roles to different participants, this would be the place to call them out and specify their responsibilities. Be sure to provide any resources they may find useful as they check these action items off.
Finally, don’t forget to ask participants what they thought of the workshop. It doesn’t matter if you’ve run the workshop a hundred times before, by soliciting feedback from the people who attended you’re bound to learn something new. While you could ask them for feedback directly, you may find that participants will be more willing — and honest — if you let them do so anonymously.
This is relatively easy to do virtually. Simply include a link to one of the many online form or survey options now available in a follow-up email. Be sure to ask for specific ways you think you could improve the session, as well as what you could do differently. And remember to always thank them for both participating and providing you with this feedback.
Leveraging Mural for remote workshops
Mural is a full-stack visual work platform that helps facilitate hybrid collaboration — including workshops! Filled with features, rounded out with templates, and designed from the ground up for collaborative work, Mural is the perfect co-pilot for your next remote workshop.
Check out how Luke Brodie, Client Innovation Services Lead, uses Mural for online workshops:
Take the "work" out of your remote workshops
Whether you’ve been planning to take the plunge into remote workshops or have always been too afraid, there’s never been a better time to go virtual. The normalization of remote and hybrid work has paved the way for the format, while the prevalence of powerful communication and collaboration tools makes it so much easier to realize their benefits. As long as you remember a few tips along the way (do the proper prep work, keep the energy going while you facilitate, and always follow up), you’ll be able to run efficient, cost-effective, and far-reaching workshops for everyone.
And Mural’s got your back at every step. Sign up and start collaborating with your team today.
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.